BRI: Overconfidence or Practical Embodiment?

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Sarfraz Ahmed Rana

CHINA’S growing economic muscle helped chalk out the global vision of build-out infrastructure around the world officially spelled as Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road referred to its abbreviations as One Belt, One Road (OBOR).The idea of Silk Road carries many dimensions but economics as the key driving force, primarily to improve the connectivity through Chinese massive engineering prowess, construction expertise and investment, knowing the potential of building infrastructure abroad promotes development at home. One of China’s major pillars of economic development approach and President Xi Jinping’s signature diplomacy, OBOR, serves as the embodiment in contemporary Chinese foreign policy, reflected in his speeches more often, however became the major theme of the conferences across the world. The concept of BRI that promises to create the vast network of corridors, officials call the “corridors of shared destiny” through development likely to affect the lives of 63 percent of the world’s population that accounts for 29 percent of the global Gross Domestic Product.

China’s global strategy for building-out infrastructure and investment also known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) pledges over a trillion dollars of investment and attracted 80 countries since it was launched in 2013. Despite ruptured reputation of China in some parts, Chinese official sources view BRI having carried an altruistic approach, the approach that offers mutual benefits and win-win arrangement. The initiative arguably endorsed by political pundits, analysts, scholars from all parts of the world, as one of the most significant and ambitious geo-economic and geopolitical move of the 21st Century.

The fact that adds more value and significance to the Chinese initiative is pressing global infrastructure demand in critical sectors indispensable to economic growth. Considering the significance of infrastructure requirement as a backbone of modern economies, world needs an estimated $94 trillion in infrastructure by 2040 out of which 59 percent of estimated global infrastructure spending needs relate to Asia which means Asia alone requires $1.7 trillion per year to maintain growth. The Chinese willingness to take the herculean task of building-out infrastructure and implement through OBOR enterprise in the sectors considered as backbone of modern economies literally fills the vacuum which has continued to emerge with the birth of isolationist forces in America, Europe and elsewhere in the West.

The Beijing’s vision of BRI, however, relatively fills the infrastructure gap while United States has failed to create any alternative to address the critical global infrastructure challenge rather being trapped in conflict behaviour. The Chinese RMB brings the much-needed investment to satisfy the appetite for the improved infrastructure in developing countries to help keep pace with radical demographic, environmental and economic changes.

From late 1960s onward, the United States managed to remain an unchallenged sole economic juggernaut in the Pacific region until it faced newly emerged economic behemoth – People Republic of China. The obvious US geostrategic paranoia that views People’s Republic of China a revisionist power, fears that China would fundamentally reshape the balance of power in Indo-Pacific region, a region an enormous strategic value to the US hence unable to see geo-economics offerings of BRI.

Therefore, the BRI is kind of bitter pill to swallow for the United States, China’s peer competitor, which considers the initiative a greater challenge to its economic and security interests in the world, particularly in the geographic regions of importance. The major reason to the US tacit opposition to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is its own strategic imperatives regardlessly.

Eswar Prasad, the author of the book, titled, “The Dollar Trap” and the former head of the International Monetary Fund’s China Division described the growing erosion of distrust between the U.S. and China saying, “The US doesn’t trust the Chinese, and China doesn’t trust the U.S.” The distrust between the two major powers however only sees a rise under Trump Administration followed by a trade war, the US President declared as a bargaining chip to get a better deal in order to Make America Great Again. It has yet to be seen who wins the war of being great whether America becoming great again or China pursues the China’s dream of Great rejuvenation.

China’s rise not just outperformed the United States in building hard infrastructure nonetheless beats in digital infrastructure as well. Beijing takes the decisive lead in the new emerging field of fifth-generation (5G) only aggravate American jitters. Even greater ambitions and power projection is being displayed in space, Beijing catches up in the space race with the US and surprised the whole world by landing on the far side of the moon interrupting the monopoly and domination enjoyed by the United States and Russia for a long time.

Moreover, the economic investment abroad help China win the network of allies and partners and connectivity efforts help make Beijing new friends and reinforce old bonds. One of such old bond realized through China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), one of the six corridors under BRI’s flags epitomizes a success with varying degrees but sustainability of CPEC depends entirely on governments will to utilize Chinese Renminbi to foster inclusive and sustainable socioeconomic growth.

The CPEC definitely have paved a way in cementing the bilateral relations between two all-weather friends even two have gotten closer at any other point in the history. Given the fact that Pakistan is one of a few countries along Silk Road which sits at the critical nod on the OBOR, much to the dismay of one of the US close allies – India. Though, President Xi made it clear at Davos summit in 2017, “Our real enemy is not the neighbouring country but hunger, poverty, ignorance, superstition and prejudice.” Yet the Indian deep-rooted Sino-phobia and Indian suspicion to the BRI is far from over which only intensified by the Western idea of string of pearls.

As the Initiative moves forward, so does the suspicion grows. Not all the suspicions are inconsiderable some suspicions vis-à-vis BRI have merits too. The welcoming sign emerges however is that the Chinese officials have not just recognized the lacunas in BRI but expressed an interest to improve their areas of structural inefficiencies and bad-practices which cause reputational damage and hobbling China’s soft image internationally.

As the founding President of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), has indicated the willingness to adopt and ensure that the Institute will be “lean, clean and green” shows the Chinese adaptability and flexibility in line to the global financial standards.

It might be too expensive to predict the scale and scope of still evolving loosely-defined initiative yet practical assessment of BRI suggests that the regional infrastructure demand and Chinese appetite to invest is likely to raise the likelihood of success, better prospects of growth and opening up economic opportunities to the regional countries. But what is certain is that the East will continue to shine. More closer to Silk Roads, brighter a country gets.

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