Monday, October 23, 2017

Updating China's Belt and Road project

The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) had an interesting story,  
One Belt, One Road: Australian 'strategic' concerns over Beijing's bid for global trade dominance (23 October 2017), about earlier Cabinet discussions on Australian participation in China's "One Belt, One Road" project. Apparently, the heads of Immigration and Defence strongly advised that Australia should not participate because of strategic risks, while the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was split with Trade officials in favour of participation, Foreign Affairs officials against.
"The economic case for Australia formally joining simply wasn't made," a senior government figure has told the ABC. 
"We saw very little in additional economic benefit for signing up, but a lot of negative strategic consequences if we accepted Beijing's offer."  
The project, a signature project of Chinese President Xi Jinping, was first announced in 2013. So far, 68 countries including New Zealand have signed up.This 14 May 2017 ABC story, China wants 'new Silk Road' One Belt One Road project to help it dominate world trade, provides additional information, while this earlier piece from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library provides a useful overall summary.  

I wrote of the initiative in Sunday Essay - is this the Eurasian century? (14 June 2015). There I concluded:
Considerable doubts have been raised about the geopolitical problems facing the Chinese initiative. I think that these miss a key point. We are talking relatively long time periods, several decades. As the roads and railway lines spread, so will trade. In a way, I also think that the Chinese are hedging their bets here. If the recreation of the southern Silk Road with all its various projects lags, they still have fast routes to Europe via Russia. 
No where so far as I have seen, I may well have missed something, will you see references to the rise of Eurasia as a continent.We are used to thinking of Europe and Asia as separate continents. They are not. They are a single land  mass that has never been fully integrated because of distance. This is changing quite quickly. 
I think that this is important. In Australia. we like to talk of this as the Asian or Asian Pacific century.What happens if this is actually the Eurasian century?  What does Australia do then?  
In August 2015, I recorded Great Silk Road - first eastbound Polish train leaves Lodz for Chengdu.In January of this year an English service was announced. In April, the first train left England for China.

These trips are hardly fast. I quote from Forbes. "The journey is as much an engineering challenge as a logistical problem. Freight must swap trains along the way, as railway gauges vary between the connecting countries. In its 18-day journey, freight will span 7,456 miles of railways, crossing Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium, France and the UK."

It will be some time before the trains provide effective competition to either sea or airfreight, but the process has begun.

Since I wrote that first story in 2015, I have noticed references to Belt and Road everywhere from travels through the Stans to African stories to stories about ports and investments. I am not talking here about specific Belt and Road pieces, rather stories in which the Belt and Road connection is incidental. I haven't attempted to track them, although perhaps I should. The sheer scale and diversity is a little mind blowing. Herein lies a problem.

Belt and Road combines economic and political considerations. Just considering economic issues in particular,  I am left with a feeling of incoherence, of fragmentation, of failure to prioritise. The project may or may not deliver on China's political objectives, but I have a feeling that it's going to leave a lot of economic white elephants in its wake.

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