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Opinion: Five years of the Belt and Road Initiative, retrospect and prospects

B R Deepak

Editor's note: B. R. Deepak is a professor at Center for Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The article reflects the author's opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is completing five years. On September 7, 2013,  Chinese President Xi Jinping first proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt during his speech at the Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan.  

One month later, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road which envisages building of hard and soft infrastructure from Indo-Pacific to Africa, including transport, energy, water management, communication, earth monitoring, economic and social infrastructure, was brought up, thus turning the concept into a Belt and Road formulation.

The Silk Road, detail of fresco in Dunhuang Buddhist cave and  Turkestan, China. /VCG Photo

I have pronounced the BRI as China’s global rebalancing in terms of geo-economics, geo-civilization, governance and geopolitics in my latest book "China’s Global Rebalancing and the New Silk Road" (Springer 2018), albeit China doesn’t subscribe to the element of geopolitics in it. I have argued that the BRI is indispensable to the globalization and deepening of the reforms in China, no wonder the concept has been embraced by many developing countries and China has become the largest trading partner of 25 nations along the route. China’s trade with the BRI countries has grown with an average annual growth rate of 1.1 percent even as the world trade has registered a negative growth.

The initiative aimed at civilizational rebalancing and enact the “Silk Road Spirit” of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefits.

The BRI is synonymous with the circulatory movements of ideas, technology, commodities and people along the ancient Silk Road that enriched Asian and world civilizations. As regards the educational exchanges, there were more than 300,000 international students from the BRI countries studying in China, while more than 60,000 Chinese students went to study in these countries.

It is estimated that by 2020, the number of two-way tourists between China and the BRI countries will exceed 85 million. The BRI remains an antidote to anti-globalization and protectionism and fundamental to the global industrial chain. The initiative must be seen in tandem with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s advocacy of building a community with a shared future for mankind and the Chinese Dream, which are integral to China’s regional as well as global economic development.

On June 16, 2017, Harbin Engineering University, more than 100 graduates from 45 countries along the “Belt and Road” took a graduation photo. /VCG Photo

Obviously, the Chinese initiative including others such as “Made in China 2025” has invited backlash from some countries, especially the US. They have blamed China for initiating “neocolonial” policies and establishing a “China-centric” order.

The issue of government debt in some countries has been hyped, and the Chinese loans to such countries are portrayed as debt traps. However, according to the Asian Development Bank data, Asia will require an infrastructure investment of 1.7 trillion US dollars per annum by the year 2030, which is roughly about 800 billion US dollars. If the West remains non-committal towards investing in the region, people will certainly welcome the Chinese investment. For example, the US commitment of investing more than 400 million US dollars in the Indo-Pacific may be the case of too little too late.

The projects within the BRI work frame are now weighed for every risk and are subjected to asset-liability ratios and return on capital requirements. Moreover, some of the debt issues have existed before the Chinese investment, therefore, not necessarily related to the BRI, which remains indispensable to globalization and will further improve the global supply, value and industrial chain by strengthening interconnectivity between countries and regions.

Workers load a shipping crate in Kazakhstan's Caspian seaport of Aktau, on August 14, 2018. /VCG Photo

As regards India, though it didn’t participate in the BRI Forum for International Cooperation in 2017, however, India’s development interests remain intertwined with those of China’s. I believe if we answer the following questions, the cooperation on the BRI projects could be feasible.

One, do we agree that there is a huge disequilibrium in the world economic systems and that neither India nor China can single-handedly offset this imbalance. Together in tandem with other developing countries, this could be possible.

Two, do we agree that both are committed to globalization and are opposed to protectionism. I believe both have immensely benefitted from the globalization.

Three, do we agree that there is a proliferation of connectivity initiatives taking place across the region and globe and that both India and China are at the center of these initiatives. Will it make sense if the bilateral or multilateral connectivity initiatives are docked together?

Four, do we agree that the security boundary between India and China has been sprawling into various domains on land and oceans, therefore, the need to establish more dialogue mechanisms? Are not both cooperating on various multilateral forums, especially the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank of the BRICS, which China has said would be the banks funding connectivity initiatives?

The “Belt and Road” International Cooperation Summit was held at the National Convention Center during the 14th-15th. /VCG Photo‍

If the answers to the above questions are affirmative, I believe, both India and China need to work on a consultation mechanism as regards their connectivity initiatives and work out modalities for strengthening and deepening cooperation.

The connectivity initiative of both India and China offers tremendous opportunities to have policy coordination in the area such as infrastructure, energy, transport, power, e-commerce, investment, and trade.

Needless to say, it would be possible if both think of aligning their development strategies while giving a full play to the “Silk Road Spirit.”

Undoubtedly, the BRI is here to stay, would be further integrated with new technologies such as e-commerce, big data, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence to enhance efficiency and efficacy of the projects.

Meanwhile, we will see China accelerating the construction of free trade pilot zones, cross-border and economic cooperation zones etc. along the Belt and Road countries thus promoting regional economic integration.


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