China’s ambitious plan to connect with Europe

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China’s hugely ambitious to transform interconnectivity in the Eurasian region is rightly described by President Xi Xinping as one of this century’s great projects. It proposes to link China to Europe with a network of roads, railways, oil pipelines, fibre optic and telecommunications cables, maritime routes and ports over the next two decades. China, central Asia, west Asia, southeast Asia and south Asia would thereby be united in a community of common destiny through Iran, Turkey and the Middle East with Europe, Mr Xi says.

A forum on the plan last week confirmed its ambition and revealed many of the problems it faces. Attended by heads of state, ministers and state representatives along with the heads of the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank, it reviewed progress, saw bilateral deals signed with China and announced $113 billion more investment. It has been one of Mr Xi’s major priorities since he announced its land and maritime components four years ago.

China’s leaders believe extending the geographical range of Chinese resources and expertise so far beyond its borders now makes eminent sense.

The initiative, while primarily economic and infrastructural, has great geopolitical significance as well. China’s remarkable growth since the 1980s has been driven mainly through state-led and foreign investment in manufacturing for export and infrastructure funded by public debt. At some stage an approach based more on consumption and competition had to replace this maturing developmental model. Heavy stimulus to avoid social instability after the 2008 financial crisis created huge surplus capacity. China’s leaders believe extending the geographical range of Chinese resources and expertise so far beyond its borders now makes eminent sense. Expanding China’s influence westward in Eurasia will consolidate relations with that huge region and help guarantee stability and security there. This would strengthen its ability to withstand pressure from the US and its allies in east and southeast Asia.

Such Sinocentric priorities match many of those in less developed Asian countries to China’s west and south, and further afield, all in need of the infrastructural investment, trade and connectivity the One Belt One Road initiative can bring. But as presently conceived and executed it lacks the reciprocity and mutual engagement needed to be properly acceptable. Some like India complain of neocolonialism, others find resulting trade unbalanced, resent Chinese labour or find investments unrealistic. Although supportive, the Russians complain the routes chosen bypass them. The EU and most major European states find the trade flows imbalanced and many projects environmentally unsustainable or opaque. In the US political suspicion overrides the plan’s commercial attractions.

China will have to heed such criticisms and reservations if this remarkable initiative is to live up to its undoubted promise.

The Irish Times

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