Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
THE largest construction project in world history after the building of the Great Wall of China,is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), often known – a trifle inaccurately – as One Belt One Road (OBOR). Most analysts have pointed to the substantial unutilised capacity of the construction industry in China as the trigger for the project, which is the brainchild of Chinese President Xi Jinping. What has not been talked about is the capacity of BRI to transform the entire length of rail and road that it will traverse. Importantly for China, it will provide a mechanism for millions of Chinese citizens to settle along its length through the BRI getting developed.
Such a migration would also extend into Africa, a continent where already Chinese workers are diligently creating infrastructure in countries such as Kenya. Indeed, this has been the case since the 1960s with countries such as Tanzania. As it winds its way from the prosperous, densely populated east coast of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) through the central and western provinces of that country, and enters into Central Asia and thence into Europe, in the space of five to six years, there is likely to be nodes of development. These would be most pronounced within China, but would also be visible in the regions outside China that the Belt and Road Initiative traverses.
Development will necessitate skilled workers, and because of this, it is almost certain that there will be a movement of such individuals to locations along the BRI route. Even without such a giant project, for example on the China-Russia border, there are already a large number of Chinese settlements on both sides of the long boundary. In several cases, Chinese citizens have married Russians and settled down in the world’s largest country by far in land area. Several shops and establishments have been set up by the Chinese, including in locations that were previously barren, and land in significant quantities bought for utilisation. The influx of Chinese into hitherto almost unpopulated areas of Siberia is creating changes not merely in demography but in economic profile. A similar result is likely to emerge across much of the length of BRI. Thus far, the Central Asian Republics had large numbers of ethnic Russians within their borders. Soon, they will have Chinese as well. It is certain the President Xi Jinping would have factored in the ability of the Belt & Road Initiative to employ and to settle millions of citizens when deciding on the project.
However, in the case of China, that country is looking at large increases in future employment through two routes. The first is the relocation of substantial economic activity from the east coast to provinces located in the middle of China. During the previous 15 years,these provinces have already developed excellent infrastructure, hence they are in a position to provide platforms for economic activity across a variety of fields. The other route is the Belt & Road Initiative of President Xi Jinping.
This will generate migration unprecedented in the western provinces of China as well as in the Central Asian regions through which the BRI will pass. Just as the building of the transcontinental railroad in the US ensured a period of strong growth and regional demographic changes in the world’s biggest economy, so too will the network of roads, railway and facilities that are being built under BRI. BRI will act as a backbone for China’s participation in the economies and even the societies of countries across its length. Of course,others living in the affected regions will also benefit through higher growth, which is perhaps why BRI is being welcomed by several countries. Even the European Union has signed on, although the motivation in this case is to ensure that hundreds of billions of euro gets spent by China in Europe, through the building of facilities.
Given that the overall economy of Europe is expanding at a much slower pace than those of Africa and Asia, to prioritise investment in Europe over investment in Asia and Africa may be a losing proposition. However, a fascination continues to be exercised on minds across Asia (including China) by a continent that just some decades ago controlled much of the world. This explains why the Arabs, the Chinese, the Koreans, the Indians and the Japanese have lost enormous sums of money in Europe. In the case of India, steelmaker Lakshmi Mittal transformed a habit of creating gold everywhere into just producing lead when he took over Arcelor at a huge cost and kept on almost the entire top-heavy, high-spending management of the company. As for Ratan Tata, the head of the Tata Group, he has burnt an enormous hole in the finances of the group by acquiring a UK steelmaker, Corus, again at a fancy price.
The craze to buy expensive assets in Europe and now in countries such as Australia continues despite the experience of Mittal, Tata and numerous others who put their money on Europe rather than Asia. It is to be seen whether the Communist Party of China will follow that example, or concentrate on Asia and Africa in its project to link their country with the world. Whatever they do, the reality is that the Belt & Road Initiative will provide an opportunity for tens of millions of Chinese to relocate along its length, thereby transforming large swathes of territory. OBOR will transform Eurasia once implemented.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.
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Geopolitical Notes From India