K. Yhome is a Research Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This article is based on interactions with Chinese government officials and think-tankers during a visit to China as part of a delegation organized by the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi from 21-29 April 2016.
Since Xi Jinping announced the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative in 2013 this has become another name for China’s diplomacy. Not only is the entire Chinese diplomatic and economic energy being directed towards this one project, the ancient Silk Roads that once connected China with the outside world, are now being presented through art and cultural heritage not only to popularise it within and outside the country, but also as a strategy to counter the growing perception that the OBOR is China’s grandstrategy for dominating the region.
OBOR – Why and How
Explaining why China initiated the project and how it plans to implement it, Tan Jian, Deputy Director of Department of International Economic Affairs at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) observed that the OBOR project was in response to the need for more and improved infrastructure in Asia and China plans to develop it through ‘joint consultation’.
Wang Yajun, Director of Department of Policy Planning at MOFA noted that the focus and beneficiaries of the OBOR will be mainly in Asia. The Chinese officials also asserted that China would merge its projects with projects of other countries and that there was need to focus on early harvest projects. The OBOR was ‘open’ and ‘inclusive’ and Beijing had ‘no intention for sphere of influence [sic]’, the officials further claimed.
Even as China claims that the OBOR initiative is driven by the need to develop infrastructure in Asia, the key motivation of the initiative is driven by China’s desire to develop itself. As Wang put it: ‘a major foreign policy objective [of the OBOR] is to develop internal conditions of China and also to contribute to international development’ (author’s emphasis).
While no country would question Chinese leadership for pursuing policies for its development and would appreciate it contributing to developing much-needed infrastructure in Asia, the issue is of the contradictions between what China claims and its actions.
For instance, China asserts that the OBOR will be through ‘joint consultation’. However, Beijing announced the vision document on the OBOR without prior consultation with any country along the Silk Road. This further corroborates the perception that the OBOR was conceptualised keeping China’s interests in mind, even if the Chinese argument that the OBOR was a response to infrastructure need of Asia is undeniable.
To counter the apprehensions of regional players toward the OBOR, China is today trying to take advantage of culture with the hope that that provides a softer side of the initiative and also help build trust among the Silk Road countries and regions. China will host the first ‘Silk Road International Cultural Expo’ in Dunhuang city of northwest China’s Gansu province in September this year.
Last November, Liu Qibao, member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and head of the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee informed members present at the first preparatory meeting that the expo would ‘have great significance in facilitating mutual understanding between different cultures while also boosting mutual trust among the countries along the Silk Road.’
Even as the central government of China through its Ministry of Culture is taking the lead in cultural diplomacy, departments of culture of provincial governments along the Silk Road initiative are also actively projecting the OBOR in their work. The Shaanxi provincial government and China’s Ministry of Culture for example, jointly hosted the second ‘Silk Road International Arts Festival’ in September 2015 in the provincial capital, Xi’an along with participation from six other Chinese provinces along the Silk Road.
In his remarks at the opening ceremony, attended by Tunisia’s minister of culture and envoys from 19 other countries, Chinese Minister of Culture Luo Shugang observed that ‘this international cultural exchange event serves as an important program in the implementation of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy. It [provides] a platform for deepening cultural exchanges and cooperation between China and countries along the ‘One Belt, One Road’, as well as promoting mutual development.’
China Can Wait
China is aware that geopolitical challenges are bound to create hurdles in taking the OBOR initiative forward. An important observation made by Chinese officials also reveals how China calculates its moves.
In the context of the four-nation connectivity initiative – Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (or the BCIM-EC), Wang of the MOFA noted that the fructification of the project ‘may take time’, but as long as the four countries ‘share the common aspirations’ to build the corridor that was good enough for China. Discussing the challenges of OBOR, Tan, meanwhile, pointed out that China was ‘willing to wait’ for other countries to come on board.
Surely, China has figured out what it wants, but what seems to bother Chinese strategists today is how to achieve the goals it has set for itself. Building infrastructure is easy, but building trust is difficult and a more long-term activity. China appears to be building the latter first. This also explains why it is willing to wait. China seems to be certain that there are better days ahead. Only time will tell if China has its calculations right.