China this week showcased its ambitious plan to revive the Silk Road trade route before more than two dozen world leaders at a Beijing forum dedicated to President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road initiative.
Launched in 2013, the project is widely seen as Beijing’s bid to expand its global economic and political influence with highway and maritime trade links to Europe, Africa, and Asia.
China is touting the massive project, which involves more than 60 countries and could cover nearly two-thirds of the world’s population and one-third of global gross domestic product, as a catalyst for peace and trade liberalization.
But the feasibility of the initiative remains unclear, says Theresa Fallon, a China expert at the European Institute for Asian Studies, a Brussels-based research group. She spoke to RFE/RL’s Carl Schreck about the potential geopolitical and economic impact of the trade initiative, and the prospects that China can pull it off.
RFE/RL: Given the massive planned investments and the sprawling geography involved, how viable is the One Belt, One Road initiative?
Theresa Fallon: That’s a really good question, because even the Chinese declare that it’s ambiguous as well as ambitious…The One Belt One Road project, or the Belt And Road Initiative, as it’s been rebranded, is kind of an all-encompassing project. So old projects that were successful are folded into the narrative. That way it guarantees that they’re a success.
For example, what happened in Kazakhstan with the building of the first oil pipeline away from the Russian monopoly Transneft. [It] took place — it was agreed to do it — in 1997. It was built in three stages, and it went from Kazakhstan to China. And that’s considered part of the Belt And Road initiative. So it almost predates [the initiative] by over a decade. So old projects [and] new projects are all kind of wrapped into the Belt And Road initiative, and it gives a very positive narrative.
RFE/RL: What impact could it have on Central Asia?
Fallon: In Central Asia, there are concerns that it’s kind of peaked — the issues that China was interested in, for example: investment in uranium and gas in Uzbekistan. The Turkmen [natural-gas] pipeline has already been built. So these big megaprojects have happened.
Privately, Russians will tell you they are very concerned about [the Silk Road initiative], but publicly they put on a very brave face.
Although improving rail links and connectivity could be very beneficial for the region because the average speed of rail is extremely low,… China’s investment in that area could be beneficial for connecting these various economies. But some are concerned that the trains will just go through Central Asia and bring these goods to Europe and not really help Central Asian economies as much.
But there are projects happening on the ground — some beneficial, some economic investment failures. But the big megaprojects seem to be tapering off a bit.
RFE/RL: What problems has China faced so far with the initiative?
Fallon: The Chinese have a very bad record on their investments. There are many, many failures along the way. In the early days of the Belt And Road Initiative, it was easy to get Chinese bank loans if you said: “This is a Belt And Road project.”
So it seemed to have the imprimatur of the Xi Jinping administration, and it was very easy to get a loan if you were going to do some sort of project along the Silk Road. They didn’t have a lot of risk analysis, or cost-benefit analysis, so these projects failed.
So there’s a lot of what we call “white elephants.” or the local people call “red elephants,” along the Silk Road: projects that never took off, or were just abandoned or useless.
Theresa Fallon, a China specialist at the European Institute for Asian Studies (file photo)
RFE/RL: What role could the United States have?
Fallon: U.S. companies want to get in on this. It sounds great; the Chinese narrative is very powerful; it looks like all these building projects are going to take place. U.S. companies want to get a piece of the pie.
Well, it’s questionable, because it’s designed actually to help the Chinese domestic economy. So some companies — for example, General Electric has gotten some contracts and is focusing to get more contracts out of this.
Europe has not been as successful, but it remains to be seen how much the tenders will be wide open, and if it’s really packaged to help China instead.
The [U.S. President Donald] Trump administration is interested in infrastructure building, but it will remain to be seen how much they can actually compete with Chinese prices.
When the Chinese come in, they send in their workforce, everything. It’s all one big package. So it’s very difficult to compete with the Chinese on these projects.
RFE/RL: Only a handful of European leaders attended the Beijing summit. What’s the view from Brussels on One Belt, One Road?
Fallon: The leaders that did attend [are from] Spain, Italy, Greece, Hungary. And those have all received investments from China. So that’s quite interesting.
Hungary is landlocked, but they are on the receiving end of the disputed Budapest-Belgrade rail that would be built from Piraeus port in Greece. So China has a huge investment there, and if you look at it from a geostrategic point of view, China has a lot of interest now in the eastern Mediterranean, moving on up through Central and Eastern Europe.
“It’s kind of a coming-out party for Beijing, and also for Xi Jinping as his signature policy.