After Beijing proposed the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative in 2013, some Western commentators expressed fear and concern that China will use it for narrow political or economic ends. Some scholars think the OBOR initiative is a response to the US’s rebalancing strategy to contain China’s rise. For example, Bai Gao, an American Chinese scholar, believes that “if the US continues to implement the approach of ‘anybody but China club’, it will force China to respond through the Silk Road Economic Belt, establishing a parallel and even competitive world order.”
OBOR is Different from TPP
But most Chinese experts insist that the OBOR initiative does not target the US, nor should it be seen as a response to the US rebalancing strategy. Li Xiangyang of CASS (Chinese Academy of Social Science), for example, believes the OBOR is a regional economic cooperation mechanism rather than simply a free trade agreement.
Currently there are two Free Trade Agreement (FTA) initiatives in the Asia Pacific region, namely the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). TPP is a FTA agreement which excludes China, while RCEP does not include the US, but both seek a unified internal cooperation mechanism.
Compared with TTP and RCEP, the OBOR has the following characteristics:
Firstly, the OBOR includes countries from Southeast and South Asia, Central Asia and Middle East, as well as Europe and Africa. The cooperation mechanism of OBOR aims to be open, diversified and flexible, and “it does not seek to build a unified institutional arrangement (like FTA), it does not require any sovereign alienation, nor does it produce strategic military presence” (Shi, 2015).
Secondly, the “quality” of trade and investment rules involved in the OBOR is much lower than that of the TPP, and even lower than that of the RCEP, but it does not exclude high-quality trade and investment rules. High-quality rules and regulations can also be adopted in some areas and sectors.
Thirdly, from the Chinese perspective, OBOR characterized by diversified cooperation mechanism does not adopt the building of standard FTAs or higher forms of regional integration (such as customs union, common market, economic integration, and economic and political integration) as its priority target. Its highest priority goal is to adapt to the actual needs of Asian countries, so that more countries at different development levels can achieve win-win cooperation.
Perceptions of Central Asian Countries
Compared with countries along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, countries within the New Silk Road Economic Belt, especially the five Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), have a more enthusiastic and positive attitude towards China’s proposal. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Uzbekistan in 2013, Uzbekistan President Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov praised the Silk Road Economic Belt vision, and said that “the revival of the Silk Road is our common historical mission.” Currently, all the five Central Asian countries have synergized their own economic development strategies with the Silk Road Economic Belt to varying degrees, with industrial upgrading, energy security, and trade integration being the goals of their cooperation.
“Big power factor” is essential for the implementation of the Silk Road Economic Belt in Central Asia. Although the prevalent view is that the Silk Road Economic Belt is competing with the US-led “New Silk Road” vision, the US understands that China enjoys much geopolitical and economic advantage in the “post Afghanistan war” era, thus the US has repeatedly said that the two countries’ Silk Road initiatives are not in competition. For example, on January 22, 2015, US Assistant Secretary Nisha Desai Biswal said at the Woodrow Wilson Center: “Some paint our New Silk Road initiative as being in competition with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt, but in fact we welcome China’s constructive engagement and see a great deal of potential complementarity in our efforts.”
Compared with countries along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, countries within the New Silk Road Economic Belt, especially the five Central Asian countries, have a more enthusiastic and positive attitude towards China’s proposal.
Russia has dominated this region since the Soviet era and has most recently formed an Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia as its founding members. When China announced the Silk Road initiative, Russian officials saw it as a challenge to Russia’s regional integration project, the EEU. China has tried to convince Russia that these two projects can be connected and developed simultaneously in a manner of mutual cooperation. In addition, the sanctions imposed by the West have pushed Russia closer to China in President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to re-orientate Russian interests from the West to the East.
During President Xi’s visit to Moscow in May 2015, the two countries signed 32 deals, a key point of which was the decision made by Putin and Xi to link their countries’ key integration projects: the Russian-led EEU and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt. Alexander Gabuev, a senior researcher at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that “the agreement was the result after ‘a painful internal discussion’ on the Russia side”, indicating that Russia will give its dominant economic position in Central Asia to China, while maintaining its military and security in the region.
Concerns of Southeast and South Asian countries
Compared with those Central Asian countries, Southeast and South Asian countries hold more concerns and reservations. For Southeast Asian countries, they are more concerned that China might “use economic incentives to lead ASEAN into broader and deeper ‘all-dimensional’ cooperation” and threaten the regional body’s unity; they fear that “in the long run, when China’s growing economic power morphs along more strategic-oriented pathways, pressure will mount on ASEAN members to reciprocate China’s regional and global interests” (Chongkittavorn, 2014).
It is understandable that at a time when China’s assertive stance in the South and East China Sea is generating anxiety among its neighbors, the Maritime Silk Road initiative has aroused significant geopolitical apprehension.
India remains ambivalent about the OBOR initiatives. While businesses may be largely supportive, military strategists have mostly opposed it. B.P Deepak, an Indian China expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University, points out that OBOR has raised hopes as well as suspicions as to what China is up to. “OBOR vision will put China at the center of global geopolitics and geo-economics, but it is still unclear whether it is a part of ‘strategic encirclement’ of India” (Singh, 2015). Therefore, “even India is interested in potentially joining the Maritime Silk Road as the plan is a boon to the economics of the entire region. India hence has to look for an alternative to counter China according to its own strategic interests” (Pillalamarri, 2014).
China Adjusting its Approaches
In response to these countries’ concerns, China has tried to adjust its policies and approaches. For example, Beijing has stressed that the OBOR initiative “should be jointly built through consultation to meet the interests of all, and efforts should be made to integrate the development strategies of the countries along the Belt and Road” (“Vision and actions”, 2015). China has tried to convince the Southeast Asian countries that the OBOR initiative synergizes with ASEAN’s development strategies and could play a complementary role in the building of the ASEAN community.
ASEAN has come up with several initiatives in an attempt to close its development gaps, including the Initiative for ASEAN Integration Work Plan and the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity. China believes that “the OBOR initiative and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation framework will help address the gaps by bettering connectivity for lagging countries and regions, thus bringing their competitive advantages into full play” (“China-proposed initiatives”, 2015).
Soon after China noticed India’s hesitation and concerns about the OBOR initiatives, Beijing adjusted its India strategy from previously “inviting” India to join the OBOR, to stressing “strategic connectivity” and “policy coordination” between the countries’ initiatives. On May 14, 2015, when meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Xi proposed that China and India should further communicate and exchange views on China’s OBOR initiatives, the AIIB, and India’s “act east” policy, so as to realize “strategic connectivity.”
In this regard, lessons could be learned from the experience of cooperation between China and Russia in the OBOR. In fact, when OBOR was proposed initially, Russia was also very cautious, and all domestic parties expressed cool attitudes. But when Putin visited China in May 2015, Russia’s attitude had changed from passive response to active participation. One of the reasons was that China had convinced Russia that the Silk Road would be a supplementary part of the Russian-led EEU, and it would ultimately connect with the “Trans-Eurasian Development Zone,” the aim of which was to develop Russia’s vast eastern region. To a certain degree, Russia has obtained the right to know, to speak, and to make decisions on the building of the Silk Road Economic Belt in Central Asia.
From Chinese perspectives, the OBOR initiative is based on the construction of infrastructure connectivity, characterized by being open, diversified and flexible, and with the building of a community of destiny as its ultimate goal. It poses an attractive vision of countries working together in mutually beneficial cooperation.
However, there is some anxiety within the Asia-Pacific region over Chinese actions on the ground that are contradictory to China’s stated intentions of goodwill and friendly cooperation. Given China’s assertive stance in the South and East China Sea, it is difficult for the region’s smaller countries to not feel suspicious of any goodwill gesture from Beijing. It will also be difficult for China to build a friendly neighborhood, let alone ask its neighbors to accept China’s grand proposal, if Beijing’s every move is met with distrust and fear. Hence, China needs to address the trust deficit that exists among some of its neighbors while undertaking the OBOR initiative.
China-proposed initiatives synergize with ASEAN’s development strategies. China Daily, 22 December 2015.
Chongkittavorn, K. (2014). Pushing East Asia Summit to new level. The Strait Times, 11 November 2014.
Pillalamarri, A. (2014). Project Mausam: India’s answer to China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’. The Diplomat, 18 September 2014.
Shi, Y. (2015). ‘一带一路’： 祈愿审慎. 《世界经济与政治》, 7, 2015. [One belt one road: Hope for caution. World Economy and Politics, 7, 2015] (in Chinese).
Singh, A. (2015). Chinese ‘maritime bases’ in IOR: a chronicle of dominance foretold. Strategic Analysis, 30(3).
Vision and actions on jointly building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. Issued by the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce of PRC, March 2015.