OBOR: A Checkmate Move in China’s New Great Game?

What is China's plan?

Toby Warden

Politics, International relations, Economics | Asia, East Asia

6 July 2017

Announced in 2013, China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) economic blueprint has been heralded by some as ‘the number one project under heaven’. The mega-plan sees the construction of an infrastructure project at sea, connecting both South East Asia and East Africa to China, and a revival of the ancient Silk Road- a trade route that lead the way for Chinese geoeconomic and geopolitical expansion. The ambitious initiative stretches across Central and Western Asia, East Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Although described as having ‘trade relations, financial cooperation and coordinated development policies’ in his sights, Xi Jinping has faced considerable regional headwinds, begging for the question: is OBOR becoming the new realm for regional contestation, despite being framed as a way to transcend popular geopolitical issues?

The leviathan project has been announced at a time when China’s foreign policy has been typified by aggressive assertiveness and proactivity. By purposely excluding the western-orientated Japan and the US, OBOR draws upon Edward Luttwak’s concoction of “geo-economics” and “military strategy”, which sees the “logic of conflict” being pursued through “methods of commerce and trade”. In 2015, Shinzo Abe announced Japan’s $110 billion infrastructure investment program for Asia through the Asian Development Bank (ADB)- the major competitor to OBOR’s AIIB bank. Likewise, the previous US’ previous administration’s ‘Pivot to East Asia’, which focused on the ‘expansion of trade and investment’ reflects a challenge to China’s grand strategy. This informal warfare over economic influence is rattling the current global economic order at its pillars, and China is at the epicentre.

The geopolitical creativity of the blueprint manifests in its ability to take advantage of other’s fragility and instability. The China-Pakistan economic corridor, which will deliver China greater preferential strategic access to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf through the port of Gwadar, runs through Afghanistan and Pakistani tribal areas, including the Gwadar port itself, which has subsequently required a 12,000-strong special unit protection force. Its greater proclivity for corrupt and unstable politics will allow China to assume leadership in a range of security issues. Likewise, the relationship of dependence of these relatively economically, politically and socially fragile countries with the Chinese powerhouse will, as David Arase argues, give China ‘superior leverage in one-on-one economic negotiations’. This relationship gives China the ability to inflict punishment through reduced market access and to incite obstructionism in international organisations at its will.

The anxiety of neo-imperial tendencies and a lack of commercial imperatives have seen international backlash. In April 2017, Australia rejected any involvement in the initiative. As Peter Cai, OBOR researcher for the Lowy Institute, believes, OBOR antagonism and strategic distrust is most prominent in India.

Furthermore, even looking past of what some see as geopolitical expansion through pursuit of Eurasian power, domestic observers are concerned. These financially unsound countries could only add to China’s accelerating burden of debt, which soared to 170% of GDP in 2016. Surrounded in domestic and international worries, Xi Jinping needs to take clear, inclusive and transparent actions to soothe and reassure.

Undoubtedly, OBOR is a major component in China’s grand strategy of national renaissance, the ‘Chinese Dream’ (hence the echoing of the ancient Silk Road). Xi Jinping has agreed with predecessors that China is confronting a “period of strategic opportunity” until 2020, legitimising its actions that pursue great power status. Yet the security environment isn’t as benign as Mr Xi has been taught to believe it is.

The Indian Ocean is, and will for the extended future remain, a significant international space.  Its control by a single security community will always elicit reactionary contest. Possibly motivated by the construction of deep-sea Chinese-built ports, which accommodate the dimensions of Chinese aircraft carriers and submarines in Gwadar, Kyaukphyu and Hambanota, the Modi government has rigorously pursued its ‘Look East’ policy. This has been manifested in the acceleration of the construction of the India–Myanmar–Thailand (IMT) trilateral highway and the reinvigoration of dialogue within the SAARC organisational union to open up more maritime corridors.

While Britain and Russia may have fought for Central and South Asian power in the 19th and 20th century Great Game, China’s OBOR blueprint is a possible checkmate move in the New Great Game. Although competing geopolitical interests and visions stand in the way, the Chinese locomotive has started and it seems there is little to stop it. In Trump’s age of anti-globalisation and Europe’s sweeping populism, Xi Jinping is being served the opportunity to make OBOR the global vehicle for international trade in the 21st century. But if he is truly going to champion our liberal economic order he will need to be efficient. And that means addressing trust deficits, assuring multilateral cooperation and reinforcing the promise that OBOR will serve collective absolute gains for all its members.

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