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With The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century, Jonathan E. Hillman has offered an accessible, timely volume that deserves wide readership — including in Pakistan, where the current wave of Chinese investment is welcomed as a panacea for what is popularly believed as Pakistan having been unable to realise its development potential.

Offering a ground-level view of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, The Emperor’s New Road has Hillman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies, moving between Central and South Asia — including a chapter on Pakistan and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — to the Horn of Africa and to Europe in order to understand how Chinese investments overseas are leading to new opportunities and, potentially, pitfalls too.

Given the extensive media coverage that China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, has received, it need only be dealt with briefly here. The BRI is best approached as a broad framework — one that has been gradually unrolled since 2013 — for enhanced global connectivity, by way of infrastructure financing from the Chinese state, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private Chinese enterprises.

Drawing on imaginaries of a once-connected Eurasia, the BRI economic corridors stand in as the modern-day Silk Road (for readers in Pakistan, CPEC would be one of six economic corridors envisioned under the BRI). That each of these corridors originates in China is a nod to the BRI’s provenance, as well as China’s emergence as a global economic power. The BRI is coterminous with China becoming a leading source of outbound foreign direct investment, a process that has, in fact, been in the making since the turn of the century.

Similar to other foreign investment regimes, it is difficult to dissociate the BRI from foreign policy at large. Consequently, we find that the BRI is welcomed by countries such as Pakistan, which see the rise of China as a corrective to Western hegemony. Other states, such as India and Japan, are expressly cautious about how the BRI might affect complex relations with China.

Yet other countries, Djibouti for example, or the Central Asian republics, may seek to balance Chinese interest with those of other powers, amongst them Russia and the United States. With the BRI, momentarily at least, China finds itself with a pronounced role in the international arena, as it pursues what Hillman describes as ‘the’ project of the century.

A welcome and accessible new book seeks to understand a fast-ascendant China, and how global China is transforming the world beyond its borders

This pronounced role unfolds in individual countries. The BRI, as Hillman reminds readers, is both about connectivity with China and about infrastructure development in the host countries. Bulwarked by upwards of a trillion dollars of investment capital, plus new financing mechanisms, the BRI has the potential to be transformative in scores of countries in Asia, Europe and Africa, where infrastructure — from roads to railways, fibre optics to seaports — is either under construction or newly completed.

For Asia’s burgeoning middle class — a demographic that stands to benefit from infrastructure upgrade through uninterrupted electricity supply, for example, or travel along new motorways — new infrastructure appears a straightforward proposition.

But the balance sheet is more complex. Investment in infrastructure rests on the assumption of its future utilisation. That has not always been the case with infrastructure along the BRI’s maritime and land corridors. After touring the new Khorgos Port, located on the China-Kazakhstan border and planned as a gateway for rail traffic between China and Europe — which has long been forecast to rise rapidly — Hillman concluded that “there was just one thing missing: an actual train.”

Hambantota, the newly built port in Sri Lanka located just kilometres from one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, not only never ended up creating the 100,000 jobs that were projected but, according to Hillman, was attracting a mere one percent of Sri Lanka’s total traffic (the Colombo port was already servicing Sri Lanka’s shipping needs). Instead, financed and built by China, Hambantota ended up adding to Sri Lanka’s “crippling debt burden.”

As an aside, Pakistan, too, has seen spectacular transit projections. For example, in May 2017, the chief economist of Pakistan’s Planning Commission, Dr Nadeem Javaid, had projected that, by 2020, four percent of global trade would transit Pakistan as it made its way from China to world markets, with the implication that Pakistan would have been in a position to levy billions in transit fees. Needless to say, nothing of the sort happened. By itself, merely building new infrastructure is no guarantee of its utilisation, nor is its utilisation a guarantee of successful financialisation.

Large scale development, as Hillman reminds us, is never only top-down. That small countries, as well as individuals, are able to exercise agency, is an important corrective to seeing power as one-directional only.

Consider two examples, both from Hillman’s discussion of the Horn of Africa. Riding the newly-opened Djibouti-to-Ethiopia railway — for which $3.3 billion dollars in investment came from China — Hillman describes how brand new Chinese train carriages were transformed into lively, communal spaces, with travellers opening food bundles, sharing eatables and breaking out in conversation. Also telling of agency, Hillman describes how, when the newly opened train accidently mowed down 15 camels, the railway company compensated the owners twice what the animals had been worth, with the result that animal casualties along the railway track became incentivised!

What The Emperor’s New Road does well, I think, is nuance how we understand the BRI. Inasmuch as new infrastructure promises material development and accelerated growth, foreign investments — Chinese or otherwise — should give pause for reflection: all too often, the world has seen how infrastructure is underutilised, projections of commercial traffic fail to materialise and countries grow indebted.

Equally important, and often overlooked, is what happens at the local level. While it is undeniable that many benefit from improved transport infrastructure, telecommunications and electricity, the same people may also have to contend with degradation of the environment, change in community and securitisation. Indeed, as Hillman notes, if the BRI’s most powerful images are “symbols of stasis” — he mentions checkpoints, long lines of trucks and barbed wire — then, “there will not be much to remember.”

The Emperor’s New Road is a welcome addition to a growing collection of books seeking to understand a fast-ascendant China, and how global China is transforming the world beyond its borders. It is written not so much for academic specialists, but for the general reading public and the policy community, which is looking for an up-to-date account that is lively and thoughtful, of how far the BRI has brought us, and the directions we may possibly be heading in.

The reviewer teaches history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century
By Jonathan E. Hillman
Yale University Press, US
ISBN: 978-0300244588

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 20th, 2021


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