In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a major project called “One Belt One Road” (OBOR). It will be by far the world’s most ambitious engineering project ever, and I believe (if it actually gets built) it will dramatically transform the globe as we know it today. The OBOR is comprised of two separate routes. One is “The Silk Road Economic Belt,” and the other is called “The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” The routes will link China to Europe by way of Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Africa. The project is estimated to take 30 years, and critics are mixed as to whether or not China and its partnering countries will be able to pull off such an ambitious undertaking.
To be sure, its most immediate and dramatic impact will be to remove China’s surface, sea, and soft power isolation with almost everywhere—except the Americas. Leaving an obvious image of making the U.S. more like China today: a big fish in a regional neighborhood. Indeed, while there is a real question mark on the viability and financing of this massive surface and maritime project, one thing is agreed upon—and that is the fact that China is gaining a lot of soft power in getting everyone to work together and build. In short, China is having a lot of lunches with a big swath of the world, and the U.S. is not sitting at any of the tables. “The real benefits of OBOR to China could be the international clout it stands to gain as its attempts to spearhead international policy and improve relations with OBOR partner countries.” (Crabtree, Ming, CNBC, May 22, 2017)
Delays, Security, India, and Japan
Delays have been a problem for the project from its inception. Corruption, confusion amongst governments and private sector partners, and financing issues have been key factors. Another major delay factor has been security—especially in Pakistan. However, other parts of Asia and Africa are also struggling. Some of the abroad security problems have been attributed to China’s internal issues in the Province of Xinjiang where the majority of China’s ethnic Uyghur population lives. After a few mass casualty, knife attacks in the region, China has had a hardline approach. Name banning, “unusual beard” banning, couples must marry using legal and not religious procedures, citizens cannot refuse state radio and television, and countless other extreme tactics are limiting the population's freedom of religious expression. The Uyghurs’ discontent with the treatment of its Chinese countrymen has already spilled out abroad with Uyghur bombings in Thailand and Kyrgyzstan (both partner countries of the OBOR). “The cost of China’s domestic security policies—once euphemistically known as ‘stability maintenance’ but increasingly described as ‘national security’ is likely to escalate in the future.” (Chaudhury, Economic Times, June 14, 2017)
Another source of delay might be a serious diplomatic game changer for the U.S. and its relationship to the world. Initially, in 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the “One Belt One Road” project, Japan’s response was “Dream on” as their South China Sea disputes with China were really ramping up (and are still quite hot in the region). India, already having experienced border problems with China and suspicious of Pakistan’s involvement with the OBOR, said that it would essentially team up with Japan and do whatever Japan did. This Japanese stance remained until President Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). To be sure, Japan and other Asian countries are already working on another trade agreement with the U.S., and there is no risk of an outright Japan-U.S. diplomatic and trade breakup. However, it is an early sign of Japan having some worry regarding a marriage that was previously considered sacrosanct. “Speaking at a forum on Asia’s future in Tokyo on June 5 , Abe said that Japan was ready to cooperate with OBOR under certain conditions.” (Pollman, The Diplomat.com, June 14, 2017) India though appears to be still a staunch holdout regarding China’s OBOR. When China announced on June 20th, 2017 a new project that would link the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean as part of the maritime side of OBOR, India quickly responded negatively to the plan. “As with the OBOR, this plan appears to be unilaterally conceived by China, and it remains unclear how it will be received by countries in the region. India, for instance, is unlikely to back a South China Sea-Indian Ocean corridor that the document says will link up with the CPEC [the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor], which India has opposed as it runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.” (Krishnan, Indiatoday.in, June 20, 2017)
There are a lot of challenges facing the materialization of China’s “One Belt One Road” project. However, already there has been real progress in both construction and diplomatic growth for China. Japan softening was a major surprise win for China. U.S. companies such as GE and CAT are also getting involved with the building of the OBOR. I do not believe a less isolated China is frightening. In fact, I believe the one thing OBOR can do that would be amazing for the entire world is to take many economic and culturally isolated nations and give them the opportunity for economic growth and cultural exchange that could help strengthen stability in some very unstable and impoverished regions. Humans are gregarious animals with brains that have evolved to live in packs. We actually receive a little dose of dopamine (which is the feel-good hormone) when we do something nice for someone. When we hug, orgasm, or give birth, we get a little hit of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding. Humans are literally wired to care for and have fun with each other. There are certainly a lot of problems that will need to be dealt with concerning the OBOR project—especially surrounding sovereignty and security issues. However, isolation—especially when it comes to humanity—seems far more dangerous.