OBOR was presented to the world by China in March 2015, as a comprehensive infrastructure & economic development programme. Its land component, the new Silk Road, echoes ESCAP’s Asian Highway, Asian Railway and Asian Economic Corridor plans from the 1980s and 1990s. But more importantly, it fills in what may be considered missing links, connecting China to the rest of Asia and into Europe. The naval parts echo what was termed the “String of Pearls” in the Indian Ocean, but extends these Westwards to Europe through the Red Sea and Eastwards to the South China Sea. Questions and concerns have however been raised about its less defined Strategic aspects, just as they were raised about the “String of Pearls,” which was also presented as an economic infrastructure project for development of ports.
The economic development part is driven and supported by massive overcapacity in China’s manufacturing and construction industries and zero or negative returns to domestic investment (on the margin). Thus, the opportunity cost of funds is low enough to allow low profit, high economic risk, investment in foreign infrastructure that could support its quest for future raw materials supplies and open its markets to sale of manufactured goods; a modern version of the Prebisch-Singer hypothesis of trade between the colonial “centre” and the colonised “periphery”. As current account surpluses are a basic feature of the existing “party capitalism” model of development, a moderate reduction of foreign exchange reserves through capital outflows, still leaves substantial net foreign exchange assets to finance the foreign exchange costs of these investments. As much of the foreign investment in OBOR will be done by Chinese companies, Chinese labour and Chinese materials, the foreign exchange component is a small fraction of the total cost of these projects. The primary purpose of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is therefore not to supply foreign exchange funds to OBOR projects, but to herald the arrival of China on the global financial stage and to act as the foundation for its global financial diplomacy.
The land based infrastructure (road, rail, pipelines, digital backbone) aims to connect China to all parts of the Eurasian continent and to the seas &oceans surrounding Asia. The countries that such infrastructure passes through (rail, road, pipeline, fibre optic cables) or is located in (port, airport, industrial estate) have to provide the land on which it is built. They may also have to take on debt to pay for part of the real/full cost of this infrastructure. It is uncertain whether the economic benefits they will receive will exceed the costs they incur in terms of land, debts to China etc. I know an economic expert who has been hired by a Central Asian country to evaluate the benefits of a China proposed rail line that will cross its territory, and he was hard put to think of the benefits to this country which may become feasible (e.g. new exports). OBOR countries have to be extremely careful in evaluating the benefits and costs to them of any infrastructure built by China. The cost of permanently transferring land to Chinese companies and/or taking on debt on behalf of projects, could prove very onerous to host countries in the medium-long term.
If the infrastructure is genuinely economic & not strategic, every country in the world should be able to use it once built, as this improves its economic viability, given sunk cost. So third countries, including India, have nothing additional to gain from “joining” the OBOR which will be built by Chinese construction/ infrastructure companies. All commercial companies, including Indian ones, have the option of using the infrastructure (roads, railway, ports, airports, industrial estates) if it reduces costs and improves profitability.
The AIIB is unlikely to be the primary source of funding for the OBOR, which from available numbers, requires funds of an order way beyond the capacity of the AIIB. As the bulk of financing will be domestic currency financing needed by Chinese construction companies, all that the AIIB can do is to provide the fraction of funds needed in the form of foreign exchange. Perhaps the AIIB is needed to provide an international stamp of respectability to OBOR projects. This is suggested among other things, by the timing of the announcement of AIIB so soon after the formation of the New Development Bank (NDB) also referred to as the BRICS bank. The agreement to form the NDB was signed in Brazil in July 2014, after years of discussion. China signed an MOU with 24 countries in October 2014 for the formation of the AIIB, five months after the unveiling of the new silk road and three months after the agreement to form the NDB.
A Chinese scholar was recently asked about his estimate of the economic risks and returns to China of OBOR projects. His answer as reported without attribution, was that he didn’t expect repayment of 80 percent of loans to CPEC projects, while repayment on other OBOR project loans would be between 30 percent and 50 percent. It is not too farfetched to assume that the rest of the benefits to China would be noneconomic, i.e. diplomatic and strategic.
Diplomatic Aspects The OBOR is however, much more than a connectivity cum economic program; it is also a comprehensive diplomatic initiative of a rising China. It is an instrument of China’s diplomatic objective of ensuring that Asia and the World recognise China as a great power. According to the Virmani(2004) Index of Power Potential (VIPP), China became a “potential great power” about seven years ago, with its economic power exceeding 25 percent of that of the USA. Its relative economic power has grown rapidly since then to reach 42 percent in 2015, as per this index. The OBOR is viewed by the party leadership as an umbrella programme for interaction with every country in Asia and the surrounding seas. The diplomatic initiative can be seen at three levels: intellectual, political and financial:
- Intellectual: OBOR provides a framework for interaction with academics, think tanks and media, interested in economic development, infrastructure investment and trade & economic relations. This can facilitate movement in both directions; Chinese financed visits of foreign interlocutors to Chinese institutions and invitations for Chinese academics to these countries.
OBOR provides a framework for interaction with the political establishment, including government ministers, of each country. As in the case with intellectuals and academics, the Chinese can facilitate the visits of foreign politicians to China for the purpose of discussing OBOR. It provides a very useful cover for Chinese experts to explain their national position on every issue, including the South China Sea, Japan and USA.
Every government minister is looking for funds to relieve budget constraints and finance pet projects. OBOR provides a framework for Chinese officials (Party, Govt) concerned with Chinese economy to interact with their counterparts in potential host countries, on their projects, programmes and economic development objectives. At some stage it also involves the highest political authorities such as the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister/President of the country, allowing China’s views on any subject of their choosing to be heard respectfully. Announcements of large financial projects and programmes attract widespread attention of all segments of society, even without any hard economic & financial analysis to determine viability. The personal contacts built during discussions can also be used to finance individual pro-China leaders, politicians & others, as allegedly happened in some South East Asian countries.
The general strategic objective of OBOR is to increase China’s influence in the countries covered, to reduce US influence in these countries, and to preempt any potential increase in influence of US or its allies (existing or future). More concretely, the goal is to establish a strategic presence in these countries, including through sale of military equipment. The strategic dimension of OBOR has two clear components. The continental and the maritime:
Continental. This takes the name of the old silk road’s disparate tracks across Central Asia, and applies the name to a “hub and spoke” system of highways and railways radiating from China at its centre or hub. Given that oil pipelines and fibre optic info-ways did not exist at thetime of the silk road, this is obviously a modern and valid add-on to traditional highways. Given China’s dependence on imported energy, the oil and gas pipelines are particularly important for diversifying both sources and supply routes for energy. The immediate strategic objectives are,
Maritime. As “silk” is associated with China and the “Silk road” with connectivity, the Maritime dimension has disingenuously been called “Maritime Silk Road”. The “maritime silk road”, clearly represents an evolution of what many called the “String of Pearls strategy”. All analysts writing on the “String of Pearls” agreed, that what had been done and planned so far was primarily economic. However, those who were most suspicious about the “String of Pearls” warned that it was not merely possible but likely that these pearls would be transformed into strategic bases, once the economic part was developed. The “Maritime Silk Road” concept and the new security strategy has brought this potential development right into the present. The strategic maritime dimension of OBOR is to develop a string of logistics bases in the Indian Ocean region, with likely conversion in future, of a few of them into naval bases. From China’s perspective, the most desirable geographical locations for naval bases are those at the intersection of the “Maritime Silk Road” and the “New Silk Road” i.e. those ports that can be connected by overland route to China.
The post World War II Marshall Plan was explicitly designed to help the revival of devastated European allies and to complement the makeover of Germany in its own image. This paid good social, economic and diplomatic dividends to the USA. However, it was complemented by creation of NATO & other military blocks explicitly designed for strategic purpose. Eventually, each complemented the other, even though they may not initially have been part of an integrated economic, diplomatic and national security strategy. OBOR is presented to the world by China, as an infrastructure & economic development program. It is in reality an umbrella for a comprehensive but evolving, economic, diplomatic & security strategy -a ‘Middle Kingdom Doctrine’ that seeks to make China the central power in Asia: A (soon to become) super power that dominates Asia and its surrounding seas and oceans & exercises varying degrees of ‘suzerainty’ over peripheral areas (including less well off parts of East Europe). One strategic implication of this doctrine is to reduce and eventually eliminate US strategic power and influence in Asia and the surrounding seas.
An alumnus of the Doon School and St Stephens College, Delhi, Dr Arvind Virmani is a noted Indian economist who has served as Principal Advisor, Planning Commission, Chief Economic Advisor to the Ministry of Finance and as India’s representative to the International Monetary Fund. He is presently the Chairman of Policy Foundation and President of Chintan, a think tank.