31 October 2018
Source: Louis Vest/flickr
Despite assurances by China’s leaders that the Belt and Road Initiative is not driven by geopolitical motives, BRI does have major geopolitical significance. The influence that China gains through BRI is increasingly viewed in relation to great power politics. Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, believes that in the next five to ten years the global market will be split into a US-led and a China-led part [US And China Going Their Separate Economic, Political Ways: Experts]. According to him, Japan and Europe will side with the US, while emerging economies that rely on Chinese investment will align with China. In this view, the BRI is a major tool for Beijing to draw non-Western countries into its orbit. So while the economic rise of China has triggered an intensifying geopolitical competition with the US, the Belt and Road Initiative – equally a consequence of China’s economic rise - is increasingly perceived as a wedge between the West and the non-Western world.
Whereas the Chinese government - increasingly unconvincingly - tries to downplay the geopolitical significance of BRI, the initiative’s military dimension is sometimes overemphasised by foreign commentators, especially in regard to China’s role in the Indian Ocean region. An example is the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, which is sometimes portrayed as a de facto Chinese military base by non-Chinese sources. The underlying thought is that because a Chinese state-owned company has operational control of the port, the People’s Liberation Army is free to use the port should it wish to do so. An article by Natalie Klein rightly points out that ‘a military base is not the same as a port and while a port may obviously be used for naval vessels, the two should not be conflated’ [A String of Fake Pearls? The Question of Chinese Port Access in the Indian Ocean]. A Chinese company operating a foreign port is in itself not sufficient for the Chinese navy to gain access to that port, just like the absence of a Chinese port operator does not preclude frequent use of a port by the Chinese navy. BRI’s military significance exists, as the establishment of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti has shown, and will surely increase, but the bigger issue seems to be the initiative’s potential to draw the non-Western world closer to China, and away from the US and its allies.
Frans-Paul van der Putten
The next issue of Silk Road Headlines will be dated 8 November 2018
This week's Silk Road Headlines
EU disapproves of broad gauge extension Bratislava-Vienna [Railfreight.com]
Botched Chinese railway project in Africa is a warning to belt and road investors[South China Morning Post
It Is a new era, but China’s balancing act will fail in the Middle East [Middle East Monitor]
Japan joins to shape China’s Belt and Road [East Asia Forum]
Africa needs Belt and Road. On its own terms [Belt and Road Advisory] Podcast
To increase awareness of and facilitate the debate on China's Belt and Road Initiative, the Clingendael Institute publishes Silk Road Headlines, a weekly update on relevant news articles from open sources.