The highly-anticipated China One Belt One Road summit in Beijing has closed with a commitment to have a follow up in 2019. On the raw numbers, the summit has been a success and allowed Xi Jinping to share some of the vision that underpins OBOR. The level of interest and potential impact of the initiative is reflected by the 29 Official foreign delegations, over 100 countries, and close to 70 infrastructure co-operation agreements signed. As I said the numbers suggest the summit was a success.
However, did the summit achieve its ultimate objective? I would suggest that it fell short from a number of perspectives, some of which I discuss now.
OBOR Vision. Whilst Xi Jinping articulated a vision of the OBOR being the dawn of a new geo-political-economic vehicle for international co-operation, it did disclose the total vision of the outcome. Whilst there was much talk of co-operation and joint ownership very little was shared as to how or what the new future world model looks like. Is the strategy to merely maintain a single hegemon structure and merely replacing the existing leader or is it to move to a new paradigm of a duo-hegemon type structure? Whilst China argues that a single hegemon social order is not its intent, the language and structure of agreements suggest otherwise. In Myanmar, one needs only look at the discussion around Kyauk Phyu deep water port / Myitsone Dam to see evidence of this disconnect.
Security. It goes without saying, that many of the OBOR infra structure projects are planned to be built in politically volatile locations. Responsibility for the physical and financial security was not teased out, with important questions as to who is responsible for protecting people building these assest? How are we to protect people and assets? Unfortunately the importance of answers to these questions was borne out with the deaths of workers on the Pakistan Qwadar port / rail corridor over the weekend.
Allaying Scepticism. It is material to note that the joint communique at the end of the summit was signed by 30 countries directly involved in current projects, however, key European states did not sign. This included significant trade partners Britain, France and Germany. The reasons given for not signing were framed around transparency issues regarding public procurement, social standards and environmental standards. Without specific checks and balances in the final communique addressing these resulted in the west European group not endorsing the final statement. Could this also be a pre-cursor to another geo-political East/West divide? From a Myanmar perspective, they signed the communique, as did Malaysia. In essence the communique was a statement of cooperation and working together to build key infrastructure under the umbrella of OBOR.
Financing / Funding. Much discussion was had around who / how this was all to be financed. Xi Jinping committed US$113bn to fund projects, this is a short of the trillions of dollars that would be needed. Whilst I suspect there was a hope that other countries would pledge financial support, this did not happen.
International Endorsement and Acceptance. Political leaders from large economic blocks did not attend, notably the USA, Japan, India and Australia. I am somewhat surprised that Australia did not send senior political leaders particularly as the two countries recently signed a free trade agreement and is in the process of negotiating a trade agreement with Hong Kong.
Whilst what I have written would appear to be a condemnation of the OBOR, it is not. I believe that the OBOR is a worthwhile plan and will help lift people out of poverty. It will also build key infrastructure that would not only improve world trade, but integrate it. To succeed China would need to improve its approach that demonstrates that it is more inclusive in practise than in words. If I was advising their team, examples of what I would be suggesting include:
- Improve people to people objectives through procurement programs not just education,
- Identify locally developed infrastructure connectivity projects and integrate these into OBOR rather than impose. India offers such opportunities to integrate and get acceptance.
So rather than say that the Beijing summit was a success or failure I would argue that the OBOR plan and strategy is a work in progress.