Home One Belt One Road: Slippages on Smooth Silk?

One Belt One Road: Slippages on Smooth Silk?

Introduction

When in 2013, Xi Jinping announced the One Belt One Road (OBOR) and Maritime Silk Route projects, many thought it would  be a game changer in the following  years, as far as  power projection and economic might of Rising China was concerned. But, down the line, one has been hearing more about it as a news making event only. Going by the fact that this project was meant to create demands for overseas markets and also offset structural weaknesses in Chinese economy,does China’s economic slowdown have anything to do with it or are there other impediments to its progress ?

Although, the silver lining has been the train to Tehran in February this year and micro progress on China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) announced in April 2015 during Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan- a fifteen year $46 billion project, passing through the controversial Pak occupied Kashmir and security torn areas of Baluchistan.

Let us have a look at its failings and successes as the project unfolds, notwithstanding the fact that it may be too early a time to review  a project of such grandiose scale.

One Belt One Road

One of the other basic reasons for conception of such a project that can be perceived at the outset is the Chinese weakness in projection of its woefully inadequate maritime power, given its ambition to be a world leader and search for new markets for its export-oriented economy. How else do you explain six projects linking 60 nations over Asia and Europe with billions of dollars investments spread over next ten years.[i]

The next big issue could have been the integration and development of its buffer zone that it always thought to protect its congested population centers, due to the sheer size and depth that it provides to the main landmass. This gives him the great advantage of extended time and space in  its favour, in case of any likely hostile ground offensive across its borders. These corridors particularly China-Mongolia-Russia, China-Central Asia-west Asia and China-Pakistan are going to be the key for development of these buffer zone regions.[ii]

Maritime Silk Route

It can be said that a similar thought process would have followed for coming up with the historical maritime silk route also; to get as much connectivity to the sea as possible through the land locked neighbors. In nut shell a multiple net-work ofrail-road and sea route connects. After all in many ways China does give the perception of a land locked nation, regardless of its 21000 km of land borders and 14000 km of maritime boundaries.

Viability of these Projects

There is no doubt that these projects represent an excellent economic sense and all inclusive developmental models. But let us not forget that the world is presently going through a metamorphism of disproportionate dimensions. Many of the developing countries along the Belt and Road are politically volatile and economically vulnerable; capital alone is not enough to provide all the requisites to see these projects through.[iii]Leave aside the fact that such development will always be invariably accompanied by its related ills of population migrations and social instabilities as also insecurities.

When we compare it with the historical legacies of the past, these projects may suffer from following major pitfalls:-

  1. Diplomatic skills required to co-opt fellow countries.
  2. Economic viability in the long term.
  3. Security dynamics of the corridors.

 

Diplomatic Skills

We are into the world of greater assertiveness of individual nations, away from the colonial past. It is not the size, geo-strategic location and economy alone that decides the relationship between the nations but various intangible factors as well, that form the under currents. No nation can be pushed around but has to be dealt with as equals. It is always give and take in order to adjust the prime national interests of the involved nations. You cannot go alone and against the current all the time, to show that you are powerful and assertive. China on its part has so far not really shown the deftness and skills that are needed to create long term partners and allies. Developments in South China Sea could be one indicator.

Economic Viability 

The cost of these projects that have a spread of over a decade runs into billions of dollars. Apparently these projects are into partnership with the involved nations but details are sketchy in terms of share of investments and modalities for recovery of these amounts from the projects. Therefore when we look at the macro-economics, there are yawning gaps that are clearly visible.

The train from China to Tehran that arrived on 15 February 2016 and had 32 containers carrying Chinese goods;covered 9500 km in 14 days through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. There was also a mention of monthly frequency for the train but nothing has been heard since then.[iv]Now there are no details of the goods that could have been taken back from Iran because China only needs oil from Iran. How viable would that be if every time containers bring items from China but nothing really to take back in the return trip? And what would be needed to resolve the trade imbalance with such countries.

Likewise for CPEC; development of rail, road, power plants and oil pipelines is fine. But again two issues here; firstly, will the oil tankers be utilized only one-way to carry oil to China and bring back nothing in return? Once again will the goods containers bring Chinese goods for Pakistan and other markets but carry nothing in the return trip? Secondly if pipelines are to be used for transportation of oil; then no study is available as regards number of pumping stations and costs involved in pumping oil from sea level to heights above 13000 feet through sub zero temperatures.

When we come to the investments, how does one expect Pakistan-kind of economy to share the burden and in what time frame? So in this case the conclusion is simple, that China will do only that much which is needed to connect the ports of Gwadar and nothing else.  

Security Dynamics

This, to my mind, appears to be the biggest challenge. We all well understand the security paradigms world over, the way they are deteriorating in geometric progression. These are all long term projects, traversing areas which do not have the best of the security environment. West Asia’s turmoil, may not be the only issue for the connectivity beyond. The migrations into Europe too are ominous signs that the security will become an issue in that part of the world as well.

Even when we are looking at the CPEC, it’s already on a false start. What with it passing through an area of J&K that remains an Indian territory under Pakistan’s illegal occupation and the issue remains flagged as part of UN resolution ! India’s non-recognition of the UN mission gets validated here, when we find that the UN does nothing to intervene in this matter, despite a protest note from India.

If this was not enough, Pakistan guarantees to protect the corridor with additional troops that have been raised solely for this purpose. We all fully understand the efficacy of providing such misconceived guarantees.So in nutshell, eggs have been endangered before they have been hatched?

What about the other corridors? Are all the other host countries proving such security arrangements and support? What could be the responsibilities and liabilities in case accidents and thefts? There are numerous details which are unavailable at present and good that they are, so the aura of these mega projects is maintained until they fructify, if at all.

Conclusion

There are times that one feels whether  it is  part of Sun Tzuvian philosophy of winning wars without fighting? You feel the power and overpower, by sheer over bearing size of the projects ! Whatever be the case, only time will tell as to whose purpose gets served really, the host or the guest.

 

Views expressed by the Author are personal.Author is Distinguished Fellow at CLAWS.

References

[i]  By NDT Bureau, New Delhi Times, 1-7 February 2016, Vol-25 No.52.

[ii]Ibid

[iii]Article on Facebook 490 by Jiayi Zhou, Karl Hallding and Guoyi Han, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and Stockholm Environment Institute. June26,2015

[iv] Times of India report, 16 February 2016, Page-20. 

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Rameshwar Roy
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