One Belt One Road: Music Videos and Geopolitical Ambitions
If you have been curious about China’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” infrastructure project, look no further than the state-run Xinhua news agency, which recently released not an article or expose, but a music video aimed at drumming up world-wide support for the initiative. The strangely catchy video made its international debut at the Belt and Road forum, a global summit held on May 14 during which President Xi Jinping discussed the latest planning developments. It includes such informative and melodious lyrics as, “When Belt and road reaches Europe Europe’s red wine is delivered to the doorstep half a month earlier,” and “Chinese wind sweeps across the desert.” There’s even a love story: when the project is complete, the lead singer assures us that a boy in Malaysia will be able to get a new job and will finally be able to “[tie] the knot with his love.” Clearly, the Chinese government is pulling out all the stops to generate support (this is not even the first music video), underscoring the significance of the initiative to President Xi. If successfully executed, this initiative has the potential to turn China into the penultimate regional hegemon. With US leadership determined to put “America First” and pull back from global politics, there is also the possibility that the revitalized Silk Road could, somewhat ironically for the United States, catapult China into global hegemon status.
In case the music video did not make it clear, the One Belt One Road program, which has been in development for years, is a trillion dollar initiative aimed at (re)building the Silk Road through a “belt,” or network of railways and ground transportation infrastructure, and a “road” of maritime ports and shipping channels. Ideally, the completed project will revitalize trade between China, Africa, and Europe. As President Xi reiterated at the summit earlier in May, he plans to spend over $900 billion on infrastructure projects such as bridges, railways, ports, and power plants, across 60 countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa. In a surprising move, the One Belt One Road program will also involve social programs such as food aid and poverty-relief projects. Some efforts are already underway: a 260-mile railway that will connect eight countries in Asia, the Ningbo Shipping Exchange is collaborating with the Baltic Exchange to create a new shipping container index, and bilateral cooperation agreements have been signed with a number of countries along the planned route. Even some US companies are looking to get involved in the project.
Of course, for all of President Xi’s ambitious and meticulous planning around ports, roads, railways, and industrial parks, there are plenty of skeptics. In addition to the general security risks, legal challenges, and bureaucratic obstacles involved in any grand project that spans multiple countries, including countries, like Pakistan, that is struggling with internal issues. There is also the fact that China’s history with large-scale programs is not stellar. Over half of China’s infrastructure projects have been poorly managed, running over on costs and falling short of the proposed returns on investment. There are also concerns that Chinese companies are using the initiative to smuggle money out of the country, as well as worries that bribery and corruption will flourish, to the detriment of any non-Chinese companies that seek to bid on work.
If President Xi can make it past these hurdles, however, this initiative has all the elements that will turn China into a regional—if not a global—hegemon: bilateral agreements with neighboring countries, economic development, improved trade conditions, policy coordination, and cultural exchange and cooperation, for example. Significantly, a large portion of the One Belt One Road project is devoted to developing ports and shipping assets, which supports China’s efforts to expand their maritime presence and as aspirations to be a naval superpower—one of the areas where the United States still excels. Xi’s decision to focus on Europe is also geopolitically strategic, as expanding China’s commercial and industrial presence in the region can lead to larger diplomatic influence. The plan has even been likened to a modern Marshall Plan, with China devoting billions and billions of dollars to projects around the world with the goal of building alliances and gaining influence, in addition to the economic benefit that flows from these new avenues for China’s steel and cement industries.
Under President Obama the United States sought to reign in China’s quest for global power: Obama urged US allies to be wary of One Bridge One Road, particularly the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a way to ensure that the United States remained involved in setting the rules for trade in Asia. President Trump has already pulled out of the Partnership and expressed a commitment to protectionist policies and America First—all actions that cede ground to China in the battle for global influence. With the current global hegemon potentially moving out of the way, it looks more likely than ever that—provided President Xi can overcome the hurdles involved in the One Belt One Road initiative—China will achieve its geopolitical goals. The country will still have to win over Europe, which is not an easy task, but with the major challenger out of the game, China certainly seems to be on the path to hegemonic status. This would be a major, though not entirely unexpected, shift in global politics, with consequences we cannot yet anticipate.