China has a plan for your future and it’s called One Belt One Road.
China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project – consisting of the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land route to Europe, and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, a sea route cutting from the Philippines to the Mediterranean – is a sprawling bureaucratic monstrosity the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) asserts will create a better-connected, wealthier global economy. The Belt and Road Initiative, as it is sometimes also called, requires China to invest heavily in infrastructure and development across three continents to facilitate trade for China.
Below, a map of the land and sea routes President Xi Jinping hopes China will control at the end of the project (via Chinese state outlet China Daily).
The consistent injection of all this terminology – the belt, the road, the “ancient” allusions – into trade discussions involving China have left many in America with questions. Where the road ends, what the world looks like once China is done building its infrastructure, and what checks remain on Chinese hegemony of OBOR succeeds are all valid questions that China has yet to definitively answer.
From what China has revealed of its plan, however, One Belt One Road could significantly altar the geopolitical and economic landscapes of Asia, Europe, and Africa, in at least the following X ways.
It’s a Bailout for China’s Economy
Economic growth has been slowing within China for years, putting more and more pressure on China’s government-controlled financial sector to fund projects that are increasingly uneconomical. The country is producing far more steel, cement, and machinery than it can possibly use. So China has built cities in which no one lives, office towers in which no one works, and roads that literally go nowhere in an effort to keep its population employed.
The massive infrastructure projects of OBOR are an extension of this. They provide the short-term demand for China’s production, staving off what many thought would be an inevitable economic reckoning and collapse.
Turning Everyone Chinese
Here’s a propaganda video produced by the Chinese government to promote “understanding” of OBOR. Notice that at the start of the video, the cute kids are all Chinese. As it progresses, the kids morph into south Asians, middle easterners and finally into blond Europeans. If you really want to understand what China is up to with OBOR, this video is the clearest indication.
It Could Significantly Hurt India
As the China Daily map shows, India is in a pivotal geographic location for the Silk Road Economic Belt – any major development to get to either Africa (through the Indian Ocean) or central Asia requires India’s input. The potential of a robust Chinese presence on the China-India border or in Pakistan, and a similar such presence in the Indian Ocean, has alarmed the Indian government, China’s main economic rival on the continent.
China’s construction of roads near the border already caused a major diplomatic dispute this summer. The Chinese attempted to extend a road construction into neighboring Bhutan against that government’s wishes, triggering Bhutan to call for India to intervene. India sent troops into the disputed territory, which China claims as its own, and forcedChina to withdraw its road construction project.
Outside of Bhutan, China is seeking to build the new Silk Road straight through Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. China is a close ally of Pakistan, which the Indian government often accuses of harboring jihadist terrorism. The Kashmir project is called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and its completion could give Pakistan (and, of course, China) full control of the territory. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied that CPEC involves any “territorial disputes” despite its location, while Chinese officials have accused India of seeing China as an “imaginary enemy.”
India and its allies in the United States have rejected this claim. Speaking following a trip to India, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters that China must understand that, “in a globalized world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road.’”
He added that the project “goes through disputed territory … [and] that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate.”
India has protested less about the maritime trade routes China is establishing, as Beijing has yet to violate India’s waters. Yet analysts note that “China now has India surrounded, wrapped up by land and sea via its Belt and Road initiative (BRI),” and the Indian government appears to be acting with this in mind, abstaining from participating in major OBOR summits and instead growing closer to Washington.
Much of the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ Is Illegal
Xinhua, a Chinese state news outlet, describes the Maritime Silk Road as heading “from China’s coast to Europe through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in one route, and from China’s coast through the South China Sea to the South Pacific in the other.” What Xinhua leaves out of this statement is that China claims almost the entire South China Sea for itself – a claim the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague deems illegal.
China claims waters in the South China Sea within the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan, and the waters off of Natuna Island, Indonesia. This includes the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which belong to Vietnam and the Philippines, where China has spent the past three years constructing artificial islands and arming them to the teeth with military assets like fighter jets, advanced surveillance systems, and surface-to-air missiles.
China openly asserts that the Paracel Islands, known in China as the Xisha Islands, are part of OBOR.
“The Xisha Islands will soon be offered to more cruise passengers following the popularity of the Coconut Princess cruise liner’s new 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road route to the archipelago,” the Chinese government announced in 2015. “The cruise has been rerouted and, since Feb 7, re-branded as a Maritime Silk Road excursion, because more cruise companies are hopping aboard the concept of creating modern tours along the ancient sea routes.”
In 2016, the Hague court issued a verdict in Philippines v. China against the defendant, stating that all its construction in the disputed territories violates international law, as well as its actions against foreign vessels in international waters. Chinese officials announced they would ignore the Hague ruling and continue construction in the area. They have also increased the number of Chinese ships active in Philippine and other foreign waters, intended to intimidate fishermen attempting to use their domestic waters.
OBOR Is China’s Manifest Destiny
As The Diplomat has noted, the territory covered by OBOR “includes more than two thirds of world population and more than one third of global economic output, and could involve Chinese investments that total up to $4 trillion.” This includes the aforementioned South China Sea waters that no one outside of the Beijing elite argues rightfully belong under Chinese control. It includes territories like Nepal, Afghanistan, and central Asian states that at one point or another in history were closely tied to some part of China.
OBOR is designed to reconstruct an alleged “ancient” Chinese empire through infrastructure, trade, and culture. Chinese officials are quick to use the word “ancient” to describe both their claims in the South China Sea and the precedent for OBOR.
“For thousands of years, the Silk Road Spirit … has been passed from generation to generation, promoted the progress of human civilization, and contributed greatly to the prosperity and development of the countries along the Silk Road,” the state outlet Xinhua argued in 2015, introducing the specifics of the project. Of the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last year that “the islands in the South China Sea have been China’s territory since ancient times, and China has the right to safeguard its territorial sovereignty.”
Xi Jinping himself has said that the entire South China Sea was “left to us by our ancestors.”
On land, China has not made such sweeping claims. But its OBOR plans make clear it hopes to make the communities it touches more Chinese. The Chinese government announced in 2015 its plans to build at least 50 Chinese “cultural centers” across the “ancient Silk Road” meant to expand Chinese cultural influence. The targets of these centers will be as close as Nepal and as far as Turkey.
China will also be opening schools across the region. “More than 10 countries involved have expressed an interest in China running schools or education programs on their territory,” the government claimed in announcing OBOR last year. Countries in the Middle East and South Asia reportedly expressed interest in these schools.