In our new on-going series Get to Know we will break down the essential stories of the day into their key elements. It’s a chance to understand the most important opportunities and challenges facing Asia and how they will impact you. Knowledge is power and we’re offering you a chance to harness the power of insight. We start with China’s epic One Belt One Road initiative.
This is called the New Silk Road as it is Xi Jinping’s ambitious plan to create faster, deeper and more integrated links between China and Europe. In the process it touches most of Asia, parts of the Middle East and North Africa and of course Europe. The current cost estimate is over $1 trillion US dollars making this the most expensive and perhaps most important infrastructure project the world has seen since the Marshall Plan helped to rebuild Europe after World War 2.
“It’s the most important issue in international relations for the years to come.” said Barthelemy Courmont, a China expert at French think-tank Iris.
The project which was launched in 2013 uses road, rail and sea to connect Asia and Europe. Consequently it is billed as a modern revival of the ancient Silk Road that once carried fabric, spices, and a wealth of other goods in both directions.
Known in China as “One Belt One Road”, the plans would see gleaming new road and rail networks built through Central Asia and beyond, and new maritime routes stretching through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.
Beijing would develop roads, ports and rail lines through 65 countries representing an estimate 60 percent of the world’s population and a third of its economic output.
So far France has been cautious on the Silk Road plan, but Courmont said Chinese leaders were “waiting for a clear position” from Macron at a time when they view the young leader as an “engine” for growth in Europe.
“If Macron takes a decision on how to tackle the Chinese initiative, all of Europe will follow,” Courmont predicted.
But, as Courmont acknowledges, Europe is divided on what to make of China’s ambitions.
The continent could potentially benefit handsomely from increased trade over the coming decades, but in some corners there is suspicion that it masks an attempted Beijing influence grab.
“They are notably asking themselves about the geopolitical consequences of this project in the long-term,” Alice Ekman, who covers China at the French Institute of International Relations, said of France and Germany.
In Central and Eastern Europe the programme has been met with much more enthusiasm, given the huge infrastructure investment that China could bring to the poorer end of the continent.
“Some consider the awakening of China and Asia as a threat,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban told a summit in Budapest in November which gathered China with 16 Central and Eastern European countries.
“For us, it’s a huge opportunity,” he said, with Beijing using the summit to announce three billion euros of investment in projects including a Belgrade-Budapest railway line.
Bogdan Goralczyk, director of the Centre for Europe at the University of Warsaw, noted there were divisions even within eastern Europe, with Poland hesitant due to its right-wing government’s “strong anti-communist stance”.
One Belt One Road has also caused the EU to rethink their priorities. Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is favourable to Chinese investment, but has reservations. “If we do not develop a strategy in the face of China, it will succeed in dividing Europe,” Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned in August.
France is meanwhile seeking to “rebalance” relations with China, eyeing a trade deficit of 30 billion euros, its biggest with any partner. “Our Chinese partners would prefer a win-win situation. Why not? On the condition that it’s not the same party that wins twice,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday.
“It is not France’s intention to block China,” he said. “But we should establish a partnership based on reciprocity when it comes to the opening of markets.”
So while questions remain one thing is certain. One Belt One Road will remake global trade, global relations and global politics in the years to come.