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Understanding China's One Belt, One Road Plan

Chinese President Xi Jinping (center) and other leaders at a Beijing forum dedicated to reviving the old Silk Road route, in Beijing on May 15

China this week showcased its ambitious plan to revive the Silk Road trade route before more than two dozen world leaders at a Beijing forum dedicated to President Xi Jinping's One Belt, One Road initiative.

Launched in 2013, the project is widely seen as Beijing's bid to expand its global economic and political influence with highway and maritime trade links to Europe, Africa, and Asia.

China is touting the massive project, which involves more than 60 countries and could cover nearly two-thirds of the world's population and one-third of global gross domestic product, as a catalyst for peace and trade liberalization.

But the feasibility of the initiative remains unclear, says Theresa Fallon, a China expert at the European Institute for Asian Studies, a Brussels-based research group. She spoke to RFE/RL's Carl Schreck about the potential geopolitical and economic impact of the trade initiative, and the prospects that China can pull it off.

RFE/RL: Given the massive planned investments and the sprawling geography involved, how viable is the One Belt, One Road initiative?

Theresa Fallon: That's a really good question, because even the Chinese declare that it's ambiguous as well as ambitious...The One Belt One Road project, or the Belt And Road Initiative, as it's been rebranded, is kind of an all-encompassing project. So old projects that were successful are folded into the narrative. That way it guarantees that they're a success.

For example, what happened in Kazakhstan with the building of the first oil pipeline away from the Russian monopoly Transneft. [It] took place -- it was agreed to do it -- in 1997. It was built in three stages, and it went from Kazakhstan to China. And that's considered part of the Belt And Road initiative. So it almost predates [the initiative] by over a decade. So old projects [and] new projects are all kind of wrapped into the Belt And Road initiative, and it gives a very positive narrative.

RFE/RL: What impact could it have on Central Asia?

Fallon: In Central Asia, there are concerns that it's kind of peaked -- the issues that China was interested in, for example: investment in uranium and gas in Uzbekistan. The Turkmen [natural-gas] pipeline has already been built. So these big megaprojects have happened.

Privately, Russians will tell you they are very concerned about [the Silk Road initiative], but publicly they put on a very brave face.

Although improving rail links and connectivity could be very beneficial for the region because the average speed of rail is extremely low,... China's investment in that area could be beneficial for connecting these various economies. But some are concerned that the trains will just go through Central Asia and bring these goods to Europe and not really help Central Asian economies as much.

But there are projects happening on the ground -- some beneficial, some economic investment failures. But the big megaprojects seem to be tapering off a bit.

RFE/RL: What problems has China faced so far with the initiative?

Fallon: The Chinese have a very bad record on their investments. There are many, many failures along the way. In the early days of the Belt And Road Initiative, it was easy to get Chinese bank loans if you said: "This is a Belt And Road project."

So it seemed to have the imprimatur of the Xi Jinping administration, and it was very easy to get a loan if you were going to do some sort of project along the Silk Road. They didn't have a lot of risk analysis, or cost-benefit analysis, so these projects failed.

So there's a lot of what we call "white elephants." or the local people call "red elephants," along the Silk Road: projects that never took off, or were just abandoned or useless.

Theresa Fallon, a China specialist at the European Institute for Asian Studies (file photo)
Theresa Fallon, a China specialist at the European Institute for Asian Studies (file photo)

RFE/RL: What role could the United States have?

Fallon: U.S. companies want to get in on this. It sounds great; the Chinese narrative is very powerful; it looks like all these building projects are going to take place. U.S. companies want to get a piece of the pie.

Well, it's questionable, because it's designed actually to help the Chinese domestic economy. So some companies -- for example, General Electric has gotten some contracts and is focusing to get more contracts out of this.

Europe has not been as successful, but it remains to be seen how much the tenders will be wide open, and if it's really packaged to help China instead.

The [U.S. President Donald] Trump administration is interested in infrastructure building, but it will remain to be seen how much they can actually compete with Chinese prices.

When the Chinese come in, they send in their workforce, everything. It's all one big package. So it's very difficult to compete with the Chinese on these projects.

RFE/RL: Only a handful of European leaders attended the Beijing summit. What's the view from Brussels on One Belt, One Road?

Fallon: The leaders that did attend [are from] Spain, Italy, Greece, Hungary. And those have all received investments from China. So that's quite interesting.

Hungary is landlocked, but they are on the receiving end of the disputed Budapest-Belgrade rail that would be built from Piraeus port in Greece. So China has a huge investment there, and if you look at it from a geostrategic point of view, China has a lot of interest now in the eastern Mediterranean, moving on up through Central and Eastern Europe.

"It's kind of a coming-out party for Beijing, and also for Xi Jinping as his signature policy.

So even before this Belt And Road Initiative was enunciated, China had already created a subregional grouping within Europe called the 16+1. It's made up predominately of Eastern European states but also five possible member states, including Serbia.

This is a growing concern in Brussels, because as we've seen with the arbitral tribunal decision that was announced last July, Europe was expected to support the arbitral tribunal decision on Philippines versus China, but instead, because of Chinese investments -- and therefore leverage and influence in the region, and especially in Eastern and Central Europe -- the Europeans had a very watered-down statement. And the key holdouts were Greece and especially Hungary.

So they used their leverage to water down the statement, and the [European Union] came up with a statement that just said that they merely acknowledged the statement of the arbitral tribunal's decision.

So this was also a wake-up call in Brussels, and they understood that now Europe could be successfully divided and that China could, in fact, buy a statement from the EU.

RFE/RL: What was China's primary goal with the Beijing summit on One Belt, One Road?

Fallon: The idea was to give it a lot of world attention, saying that China is a huge economic player on the world stage; all economic roads go back to Beijing.

So it's kind of a coming-out party for Beijing, and also for Xi Jinping as his signature policy.

This has a lot to do with domestic politics as well, saying: "Look, all these people have come, all these world leaders have come to Beijing and they’re interested in China as a new leader in globalization."

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a roundtable session at the Belt And Road Forum in Beijing on May 15.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a roundtable session at the Belt And Road Forum in Beijing on May 15.

RFE/RL: Russian President Vladimir Putin made a high-profile appearance. How does Russia fit into the initiative?

Fallon: It's a very interesting relationship between Russia and China. Some have described it as an axis of convenience, others have called it frenemies.

Putin had a very important speaking role at this event, but the Russians remain skeptical, in my view.

Privately, Russians will tell you they are very concerned about it, but publicly they put on a very brave face. The Chinese are the same way; in public they applaud this type of cooperation, but privately they just wonder when it’s going to run out.

And the Russians have enunciated the Eurasian Economic Union. In one sense, it was kind of a way to compete with China's Silk Road. But they are unable to do that because the Chinese have very deep pockets, and the Russians don't.

So some in Russia understand this and are willing to embrace it. Others are playing for time to see how this project will actually work out.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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