China’s Silk Road Development Criteria: It’s Only OBOR If We’re Involved

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CDE Op-Ed Commentary

China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative has captured the attention of global media, and has been directly linked to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statements concerning the plan’s development.

A speech given in Kazakhstan in 2013 is often considered the first reference to the OBOR initiative. In the speech, Xi stated that the aim of OBOR was “To vigorously strengthen the practical cooperation and to be good partners with mutual benefit and win-win opportunities. We should turn the advantage of political relations, the geographical advantage, and the economic complementary advantage into advantages for practical cooperation and for sustainable growth, so as to build a community of interests. We should create new brilliance with a more open mind and a broader vision to expand regional cooperation.”

Later that year, the term “One Belt, One Road” was used for the first time to describe this vision. However, there are signs that OBOR is becoming a metaphor for something more strictly defined than purely trans-continental overland and maritime development, and what was termed “practical cooperation”.

The recent launch of China’s official OBOR website makes the distinction very clear – it’s only an OBOR project when the Chinese are involved. That may seem obvious, but in fact, certain countries along the Silk Road – and participants in today’s regional and maritime development – may not fit into China’s plans despite creating infrastructure developments that fit right into China’s stated criteria.

An example is India, which recently announced that they will not be attending President Xi’s first OBOR conference in Beijing. That was due to China intending to show off developments within the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – which would have been fine except that it contains swathes of disputed territory claimed by Delhi.

China’s response was to lambast India for dragging its heels over OBOR, and suggest that the country was “biased” against it unless it attended Xi’s dialogue. That accusation caught a lot of attention, until one realizes that India is indeed developing OBOR routes. It has announced two rail routes into Bangladesh, a highway through to Myanmar and Thailand, and is spending close to US$12 billion on upgrading its port facilities. Those fit into China’s OBOR definition, but do not appear to count because China is not involved.

China and India will undoubtedly discuss these issues and catch up on regional developments as India has recently joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

It does, however, suggest that China has significant propaganda criteria attached to the development of OBOR routes.

Here, we can revert to the official OBOR website. It lists 60 participating countries, but only contains details of Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The website’s “contact us” form for cross-border projects only links back to those same Chinese SOEs, despite international partners being involved.

This is fine, as it is a Chinese promotional website. But what it does demonstrate is the difference in determining what is an OBOR project and what is not. It is OBOR if the Chinese are involved. If they are not, it is something else.

The consequence of these OBOR limits is that it makes it rather tricky to work out what is actually going on regarding pan-Eurasian development, as China is excluding other nations’ development initiatives from its own OBOR promotional ambitions. With 60 countries involved, that’s a lot flying under the radar.

But help is at hand. Our new Silk Road Briefing is not an OBOR portal, and covers as much as we can find. Please feel free to let us know if you have projects that fit the description of overland and maritime route development, but do not involve Chinese business interests. We’d also love to hear about those that do – we’d be happy to feature all Silk Road projects and opinions in order to build up a complete picture of what is being developed along the belt and road. Articles and news can be submitted to editor@asiabriefing.com.

In the meantime, dealing with Chinese hype over what is and what are not OBOR projects can involve a bit of fun. Even the Chinese didn’t stick an OBOR banner on the recent China-London train “service” which delivered goods into the UK’s Eurorail station in January. That was billed as “The Yiwu – Barking Express” with no mention of OBOR, but with plenty of fanfare for the Yiwu based Chinese rail company that organized it. It garnered plenty of media attention, but with very few people pointing out it took three months to turn those containers around – they only started the return journey last week. But great pre-listing publicity for Yiwu Timex Industrial Investment Co Ltd.

There are other more serious issues concerning the OBOR brand as well. In what has certainly been branded an OBOR project, China has relocated several out of commission cement factories to the outskirts of Dushanbe, Takijistan’s capital. That has been billed as an example of a Chinese OBOR investment into Central Asia, which is great until one realizes that cement production is one of the world’s most polluting industries. Flogging off old, decommissioned and toxic production lines too often to China’s poorer relations could make the OBOR initialization toxic itself.

China has never been especially good at self-promotion, as it becomes entwined with the CCP’s own brand of political correctness and veers from claims of the outrageous to the watered down through rhetoric. With OBOR, China would do well to promote the concept as something rather more inclusive of other nation’s ambitions than claiming what amounts to the entire Silk Road as its own. After all, neither Marco Polo nor Ibn Battuta were Chinese, and the famous Monk Xuanzang of the Journey to the West classic only made it as far as India. Using OBOR is a handy title to give to China’s involvement, but in itself, it doesn’t cover the true extent of the development of the new economic Silk Road. The distinction is clear.


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One response to “China’s Silk Road Development Criteria: It’s Only OBOR If We’re Involved”

  1. UPDATE: India has agreed to send a “Representative” to China’s OBOR conference in Beijing next month, but it will not be a politician. China will be toning down its presentation of the China-Pakistan Trade Corridor, which includes disputed territories, at the event.

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