Exclusive Opinion Piece: One Belt One Road (OBOR) – Old Wine in a New Bottle With Chinese Characteristics

By Lt Gen s L Narasimhan (Retd)

Ever since Mr Xi Jinping announced the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative in September 2013 in Kazakhstan, the project has been the talk of the towns around the world. It is a very ambitious project with an estimated cost of approximately US $ 1.4 trillion involving almost 68 countries. It will span over the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. The Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing on 14 and 15 May 2017 saw the participation of 29 heads of state and representatives from approximately 130 countries.

Many countries signed the draft trade agreement put out by China during that conference and many others, such as the representatives of European countries, did not sign that agreement quoting issues of trade regulations of their respective countries and lack of clear information on the trade practices that will be followed during the execution of the project. India was conspicuous by her absence in the Belt and Road Forum. She had put across her objections to China right from the beginning, with respect to the sovereignty and territorial integrity and the opaqueness surrounding the project.

Many analysts have written about OBOR (一带一路). Depending on which part of the world they are from their concentration has been in those areas of OBOR that affect them directly. For example, there has been a very serious debate in the government circles, think tanks and academic institutions in India about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (中国巴基斯坦经济走廊). An initiative of this magnitude and depth needs careful study of all aspects involved in it. In a series of articles it is intended to discuss each segment of OBOR and the issues that are related to that segment and in the end discuss overall implications of this initiative.

Who is the architect of OBOR? As in the case of military reforms that are going on in China, Xi Jinping is credited with the OBOR initiative. The military reforms are a legacy task that was handed over to him. This was covered in an earlier article by this author. Similarly, it is this author’s belief that OBOR is an afterthought. Many projects that are part of OBOR actually precede the announcement of the initiative.

Examples of these are the Gwadar Port project, Hambantota Port project in Sri Lanka, Port Piraeus in Greece, the rail connectivity between Nairobi and Mombasa that is to be extended to Uganda and Rwanda, Bangladesh-China-India- Myanmar Economic Corridor (while China claims that BCIM EC is a part of OBOR, India’s stand is that BCIM EC precedes OBOR and therefore it is not part of the OBOR) etc.

There are two components of One Belt One Road initiative. They are the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the Maritime Silk Route. Both the segments contain the word ‘Silk’; not a coincidence. Amongst many items that used to be traded from China along the Ancient Silk Route, it was the Chinese Silk that was the most attractive one and hence the name Silk Road. Countries like Italy exported carpets, jewels, amber, metals, dyes, drugs, and glass. However, Chinese silk was so popular that Italy and other countries continued to trade with China with an adverse trade balance. A similar trend is expected with the OBOR.

The SREB (丝绸之路经济带) corresponds to the Ancient Silk Route albeit with variations. Hence the title of this article that says OBOR – old wine in a new bottle. The variations in the Ancient Silk route are explained by the phrase “with Chinese Characteristics”.

Many of us know that the Ancient Silk Route from China was preceded by the Persian Royal Road that ran from Iran to Turkey during the Achaemenid Empire (500-330 BCE). The speed with which the couriers carrying goods covered this distance was mentioned by Herodotus in his History.

Similarly, OBOR aims to achieve faster delivery of Chinese goods to countries that fall within its ambit. Chinese part of the Silk Road was linked to the Persian Royal Road around 200 BCE, during the Han Dynasty, when the Chinese sought the help of Alexander the Great’s injured soldiers left behind by him in today’s Tajikistan to defeat the Xiongnu (border tribes). The Silk Road routes stretched from China through India, Asia Minor, up throughout Mesopotamia, to Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome, and Britain.

The linkages from China in the Ancient Silk Route connected Eurasia, Europe and Africa as OBOR is being envisaged now. This also bears further testimony to this author’s belief that China’s present strategies are drawn from the strategies that successful dynasties followed in the past.

Amongst many items that used to be traded from China, it was the Chinese Silk that was the most attractive one. Hence the name Silk Road. What did the other countries export to China? For example, Italy exported carpets, jewels, amber, metals, dyes, drugs, and glass. However, Chinese silk was so popular that Italy and other countries continued to trade with China with an adverse trade balance. A similar trend can be expected with OBOR.

Looking at the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route one cannot help thinking about the similarities with that of Admiral Zheng He’s expeditions in the 15th Century. Please look at the maps below:

The positives and negatives of this gigantic initiative emanate from the intentions of China and the way these intentions are perceived by other nations. China maintains that this is an initiative that will benefit the countries that participate in it.

Many countries feel that this is an initiative announced by China unilaterally to take care of the excess capacities that China has and that it is also an endeavour to find new markets for China’s goods. India’s concerns on sovereignty, opaqueness of the projects and the initiative being a non-consultative one, echoes in other parts of the three continents where this initiative is planned by China. China has been aggressive in pushing this initiative.

Like in all initiatives that are pushed hard, a push back against OBOR can be expected.

In the recently concluded African Development Bank Summit in Ahmedabad, India and Japan have joined hands to start an Asia Africa Growth Corridor with a US $200 billion funding. This project may be perceived by China as one that runs counter to her OBOR initiative in Africa. Russia backed European Economic Union initiative is languishing due to lack of funds because of which Russia has been a reluctant partner in the OBOR initiative.

In the recently concluded African Development Bank Summit in Ahmedabad, India and Japan have joined hands to start an Asia Africa Growth Corridor with a US $200 billion funding. This project may be perceived by China as one that runs counter to her OBOR initiative in Africa. Russia backed European Economic Union initiative is languishing due to lack of funds because of which Russia has been a reluctant partner in the OBOR initiative. Additionally, though the talks over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have taken a backseat due to Brexit and Mr Trump’s policies, it is not dead. During the May 2017 visit of President Trump to Brussels, Ms Merkel tried to convince Mr Trump that a US – EU trade partnership will be better than a US – UK trade partnership. Therefore, hopes of reviving the TTIP still exist. Trump administration has sought funding for the New Silk Road (NSR) focussed on Afghanistan and its neighbours, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor linking South Asia with Southeast Asia. In both these projects India is likely to play a major role. The initiatives highlighted above, if progressed well, will have serious implications for the OBOR.

Having seen the similarities between Ancient Silk Route and the OBOR and the reaction of countries to the latter, it is intended to discuss the OBOR in its Asian context in the next article.

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