“One Belt One Road: A New Era of China’s Geopolitical Strategies” was an event hosted by Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies and co-sponsored by the Asian Institute in the University of Toronto on February 24th, 2016. The event featured a brief introductory remark from the Deputy Consul General of the People’s Republic of China, Mr. Xu Wei, as well as a panel of three speakers consisting of Professor Hasan H. Karrar, Assistant Professor of History from the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Professor Jeremy Paltiel, Professor of Political Science at Carleton University, and Professor Victor C. Falkenheim, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies and Political Science at the University of Toronto. The event was moderated by Karl Yan, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. The panel speakers presented their thoughts concerning the new Chinese policy of “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Established in 2013, the projected three-decade long initiative emphasizes the formation of new land-based trade routes through Central Asia, as well as new maritime-based trade routes from China to Europe. Discussing the geographic, economic, and political implications, the panelists presented varying perceptions regarding China’s attempt to construct and develop this new transnational initiative.
As a brief foreword, Mr. Xu Wei described China’s “One Belt One Road” policy as that of an economic opportunity in developing greater connection between China and the rest of the world. Mr. Xu explained the policy as not only for Chinese development, but also for the facilitation of growth in developing countries. Specifically, the policy focuses on both an efficient flow of resources through these nations and greater multilateral cooperation and collaboration for the nations involved with these new trade routes. Mr. Xu cautions against viewing this policy as a new Chinese “Marshall Plan” intended to unilaterally expand Chinese prominence and economic growth. Instead, Mr. Xu affirmed that the Chinese policy is aimed towards fostering peaceful and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and the world.
The first speaker, Professor Hasan H. Karrar, discussed the changing geopolitical relationship between China and Central Asia from the 1980s to the present “One Belt One Road”. Karrar described Central Asia as the Chinese “gateway” to Eurasia, where the Chinese have been heavily engaged with the region since the 1980s. This occurred as a result of the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations and the resumption of trade between the two nations during that period. Karrar stated that by the 1990s, such economic engagement had accelerated during the 8th Five Year Plan from 1991-1995, which emphasized development in the interior of China. Coupled with the new independence of the Central Asian States during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chinese economic engagement was propelled to new heights. By 1994, China began to develop diplomatic relations with these Central Asian states, which later culminated in the 1996 development of a formal economic advisory body known as the Shanghai Five. This initiative was later institutionalized into the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) in 2001, forming a transnational body that formalized mechanisms for economic cooperation, an interbank consortium, and a transnational business council. Karrar described the SCO as being the predecessor of the One Belt One Road initiative, since the new initiative represented an expanded spatial and economic configuration of the broad economic aims of the SCO. The initiative is widely linked to other nations and generously funded to the tune of $2 trillion appearing as a physical manifestation of China’s economic goals in Central Asia. Conclusively, Karrar, described the continual discourse in the development of “the new silk road”, perceives the “One Belt One Road” initiative as a continuation of increasing Chinese interaction and involvement in Central Asia, driven by Chinese economic interests in the region.
The second speaker, Professor Jeremy Paltiel, discussed his view of the “One Belt One Road” initiative as a means of revitalizing Chinese economic growth. Using economic figures, he established that the Chinese economy was seeing decreasing rates of growth compared to past figures since 2000. Citing a case example, Paltiel stated that in 2015, China was only using 66-70 percent of its full steel production capacity, having already saturated its own domestic ability to meet such supply as illustrated by the 60 million square meters of unsold housing in China. As trade and investment became increasingly unreliable sources of economic growth after the 2008 global financial crisis, Paltiel described how China increasingly realized that it needed to raise both domestic and global demand to meet their domestic overproduction. Consequently, Paltiel illustrated the “One Belt One Road” initiative as a major push towards alleviating such economic problems. Citing President Xi Jinping’s description of the world “as a community of common destiny” with China as a provider of public goods, Paltiel stated how China views the development of the world as integral in promoting their own domestic growth. By both initiating large infrastructure projects and situating developing nations on the “One Belt One Road”, it in turn creates a greater demand for Chinese products, thus spurring Chinese growth. Consequently, this initiative was illustrated as helping to replicate the Chinese development model, summarized in Paltiel’s quote, “if you build it, they will come.” Paltiel clearly illustrated China’s attempts to increase its transnational diplomatic and economic relationships in order to further the success of this initiative. Paltiel sees the initiative as the Chinese use of the visible and invisible hand in forming a synergy between market forces and government functions. This is all for the purpose of revitalizing global and China’s domestic economic growth.
The final speaker, Professor Victor C. Falkenheim, discussed the geopolitical responses to the Chinese venture, specifically the need for transnational collaboration within the ambitious One Belt One Road Project. As the One Belt One Road initiative involves up to 65 states, covering 50 percent of global Gross National Product and 4.4 billion people, Falkenheim described the initiative as containing both substantial risk and reward. Falkenheim further described Chinese domestic skepticism toward the projects, citing a People’s University article documenting a series of four principal external challenges to the project, summarized as foreign geopolitical suspicion, territorial disputes, aspirations of rival regional powers, and political instability in Central and South East Asia. Analyzing Chinese foreign relations, Falkenheim stated that nations such as Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Pakistan were promised assurances of Chinese funding, were “bandwagoning” rather than balancing to the allure of development rather than cooperative engagement. In comparison, regional powers such as Russia, India and Singapore remained cautious of such an open reception to the initiative. In addition, Falkenheim described the development of Chinese political lobbying, citing the development of a pro-Chinese lobby in the European Union supported by the Eastern European nations benefiting from this economic engagement. In describing this cautiousness and mixed response to the One Belt One Road initiative, Falkenheim explained that the threat of soft power utilizing the invisible hand was most concerning to China’s partners. Although the Chinese have attempted to overcome such criticism with their large financial backing as well as political engagement, Falkenheim established that China will likely continue to encounter lukewarm responses and criticisms as the project continues in the future.
From the illustration of economic interests of China in Central Asia described by Harrar, the use of the generate Chinese economic growth by Paltiel, and the illustration of the potential geopolitical challenges facing the project by Falkenheim, the diversity of interpretations mirrors the international debate regarding the Chinese “One Belt One Road” initiative. The panel as a whole can be seen as viewing the initiative as walking a fine line between economic growth, cooperative development, geopolitical concerns, and perceived Chinese ambitions. As concisely summarized by Professor Falkenheim, the three decade time span of the project will definitely foster changing opinions, jokingly noting that another conference in 2017 would once again yield changing perceptions on the project.
Timothy Law is a 3rd Year student studying International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies at the University of Toronto, Victoria College. Currently, Timothy serves as an event correspondent and editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies.