Make no mistake, China's Belt and Road initiative is a huge opportunity

Make no mistake, China's Belt and Road initiative is a  huge opportunity

Who will provide global leadership, facilitate trade and growth and contribute to new norms and rules in the coming decades? When it comes to the Eurasian continent, it is obvious that a great power is rising (or, more correctly, that an old power has risen again). And while it will be accompanied by many partners, it is that one country whose trajectory will be most important to making “the Asian century” a success for all – China.

One of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature policies towards that end is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which combines a land “economic belt” and a “maritime silk road” that will link China with Southeast, South and Central Asia, the Arabian Gulf, North Africa and then finally with Europe.

The World Bank estimates that it will encompass 30 per cent of the global GDP, 62 per cent of the world’s population and 75 per cent of currently known energy reserves.

China’s Belt and Road Portal says that the initiative already has the support of more than 100 countries and international organisations, with 50 countries having signed co-operation agreements, while China has built 56 economic and trade zones so far in 20 BRI countries. Ambitious is a word frequently used to describe it. It is an understatement.

For the Gulf region, the BRI will have knock-on and multiplier effects, an issue China’s state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi addressed at the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing a week ago, which resulted in the approval of the declaration of action on Sino-Arab Belt and Road Cooperation.

Industrial parks, ports, new economic zones, the digital economy and increased mutual investment: these are just the beginning of the kind of collaboration that it is hoped will bring “win-win” results for all parties involved.

It is important that they do so – and that means that all countries need to look after their own interests carefully. Closer to China, it is entirely natural for smaller states to have a degree of wariness about the rise of a power in their neighbourhood for it suggests that the current status quo will not survive.

Change, even if it is entirely justified, can still be disconcerting and the case of Hambantota Port, in which Sri Lanka agreed to hand over to Chinese state-controlled firms after struggling to pay back multi-billion dollar loans from China, has sparked some talk of “debt-trap” diplomacy, although China’s Global Times newspaper pointed out this week that “Beijing agreed to offer loans considering the long-term friendship between the two countries and Colombo's call for development… China cannot be blamed for Sri Lanka's debt quagmire".

But then for all the BRI’s talk of “a community of shared interests and destiny”, “mutual learning and benefit”, “mutual political trust, economic integration, and cultural inclusiveness” – all of which are welcome and may be quite genuine – it is not a charity and nor is the associated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.


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