Can OBOR bring the EU and China closer together?
By Fraser Cameron, Director
17 April 2017
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Although the geographical limits of OBOR have never been defined, the initiative has a domestic as much as an international context. It aims to close development gaps within China, provide an outlet for surplus capacity, and also improve connectivity between China and Europe. It is part of the overall Going Global strategy. OBOR enjoys strong support at the highest levels in China whereas European opinion is more cautious and waiting to see whether concrete projects materialize. No one doubts the need for massive infrastructure investment in the many countries between China and the EU but the OBOR initiative could face many potential pitfalls including political instability, terrorism, corruption, high costs, harsh terrain, long distances to the market, and tensions with other great powers. It is clear that far greater attention should be paid to political risk analysis for the successful implementation of OBOR. The Chinese should be wary of over-selling OBOR. Some official commentaries have tended to exaggerate the achievements to date. Shared interests should lead to China-Europe cooperation on OBOR. The vision for OBOR is ambitious, but if well implemented, it has the potential to benefit the various countries and societies along the road, not least in promoting sustainable development. It could also impact on global governance. The popularity and success of OBOR initiative will depend not only on the economic gains and benefits, but also on successful cooperation on issues such as culture, tourism and people to people exchanges.
The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, launched in September 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping and followed by the announcement of the Maritime Silk Road in the Indonesian Parliament in October 2013 has become a central plank of Chinese foreign economic policy. On 14-15 May 2017, China plans to host an OBOR summit in Beijing with many foreign leaders invited to take stock of the initiative and to discuss future plans for cooperation. The summit comes at a critical time for the multilateral system with President Trump pursuing an avowedly ‘America first’ approach to trade policy. Speaking in Davos in January, President Xi defended globalization and criticized ‘trends towards self-isolation,’ a thinly veiled reference to President Trumps ‘America First’ approach. Xi extolled the benefits of OBOR as a means to address regional and global economic problems and generate fresh energy for connectivity. EU leaders have generally welcomed OBOR and especially China’s willingness to make a substantial contribution to the so-called Juncker Plan.Xi’s speech was also welcomed in Brussel but EU leaders called for action and not just words from Beijing. Reflecting growing European business concerns, the EU’s ambassador to China said that ‘so far, the EU has not seen sufficient signs that China will be willing to grant reciprocity of market access to European companies.
Why OBOR? There are different motives to explain the OBOR initiative. Some view it as a means for China to deal with its over-production capacities, to reduce regional imbalances by promoting economic development in the Western part of the country, and to utilize its vast, albeit declining, foreign exchange reserves to secure access to new sources of raw materials and promote new markets for Chinese goods. Some consider it will improve China’s energy security while others see it as a master-plan to increase Chinese influence at a time when American leadership in Asia is questioned. China should also gain more influence in Central Asia, often viewed as Russia’s backyard. Some see it as a clever attempt to divert attention from Chinese activities in the disputed South China Sea. Others take a more altruistic view comparing it to the Marshall Plan launched by the US after the Second World War to help restore the battered economies of Europe.
To date there has been very little detail about OBOR from the Chinese side and Chinese officials and experts have been struggling to define the concept and to come up with concrete projects. There is no deadline and there seems to be no exact geographical confines with projects in Africa, Australia and even Latin America all being placed under the OBOR umbrella. There is also an attempt to include free trade agreements that were started long before the OBOR initiative. On the European side there has been a cautious welcome for OBOR but political and business leaders have been waiting for evidence of concrete projects, which they could support. What is clear is the huge interest in OBOR with close to 100,000 articles about OBOR appearing in the past four years. This article reviews how OBOR has been presented and received in China and Europe and assesses its potential to strengthen EU-China relations.
The media has reflected official views on OBOR while think tanks and institutes have been encouraged to come up with ideas that could be implemented under the OBOR banner. The official line is that OBOR ‘upholds the five principles of peaceful coexistence and is open to all countries, and international and regional organizations for engagement.’ Beijing has repeatedly stated that OBOR is a vision for ‘harmony, peace and prosperity, and not a geopolitical conspiracy to change the existing international order.’ China has also sought to embed OBOR within the existing global order which it hopes gradually to reform.
China launched OBOR with little examination of possible risks and threats. This was strange as many of the countries along the route are politically volatile and economically vulnerable. 26 out of 66 are Muslim countries and some have serious problems with jihadist elements. They vary enormously in size, development, history, religion, language and culture. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Afghanistan and Iraq, score the highest with regards to overall risk with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan close behind. While financial assistance will be provided to countries of the OBOR through AIIB and other mechanisms, capital cannot provide the stability or security necessary to see these projects through, nor guarantee that counterparts will hold on to their end of the bargain. Moreover, it cannot control public opinion. Chinese companies using Chinese labour are not always welcomed with open arms, and the flooding of Chinese goods and exports likewise can become a source of local disgruntlement and resentment. Developing countries are littered with cases of failed, stalled, or at least troubled Chinese projects due to local opposition, corruption, regulatory issues, and legal problems.
So far, the vast majority of China’s foreign investment has been done through state owned enterprises (SOEs). Since SOEs answer to government shareholders and enjoy state financial support, there has been little incentive for these Chinese companies to carefully assess cost, benefits, and risks. As a result, investment returns have been low. For instance, the head of China’s mining association in 2013 estimated that up to 80 percent of China’s mining ventures overseas had failed. China has stated that the OBOR will ‘give play to the decisive role of the market.’ In reality, it is more likely that projects will continue to go to big players and state-affiliated enterprises.
It is no secret that OBOR is seen as a quick solution to the problem of over-capacity in China. For example, He Yafei, the former vice minister for foreign affairs, penned an opinion article last year in which he explicitly mentioned the opportunity to use China’s excess steel and iron for OBOR infrastructure building. For now, though, it is still not clear to what degree domestic low-end industrial production will be used to support the initiative. Challenges in that regard include the difficulties and expenses of transporting bulky and heavy materials abroad. Furthermore, the newly released Action Plan for OBOR states that ‘efforts should be made to promote green and low-carbon infrastructure construction.’ China’s war on pollution, if it is taken seriously, still commits the country to painful domestic readjustments no matter what companies operating overseas may be involved in. However, a large part of the OBOR will in fact be internally focused. Major infrastructure projects are being planned to connect some of the China’s more remote regions to the wider national and international markets. And while positive in some respects, this again amounts to yet another massive stimulus package for traditional industries which could further delay the shift to a more balanced market economy. Furthermore there is concern that some of the major coastal cities such as Shanghai are not hundred percent committed to OBOR, preferring to concentrate their energies on moving up the economic ladder.
Overcapacity of course is just one among a plethora of economic and geopolitical motives for China, some of which include the internationalization of the yuan, creating alternative options in the international financial system in need of reform, shaping a more pliable regional security and political environment for itself, and finding alternatives shipping routes. In these aims, the OBOR could very well prove to very successful in enhancing China’s regional and geopolitical clout. But as far as direct economic gains go, the benefits may be ironically both too shortsighted with regards to shedding capacity, and too long-sighted in terms of investment return. Much will also depend on whether Xi’s successor will remain committed to OBOR.
To date over 70 countries and organizations have joined or voiced support for OBOR. The early successes of OBOR were summarized as follows by the Chinese MFA:
· Accelerating production capacity cooperation.
China has signed agreements amounting to $100bn with 20 countries to implement institutional cooperation in production capacity. So far 52 projects worth $27bn have been implemented with cooperation between China and Kazakhstan performing an important demonstration effect.
· Reached consensus on the construction of an economic corridor.
China, Russia, and Mongolia have reached a consensus on the construction of economic corridors and are preparing the planning outline. The China-Pakistan economic corridor has initiated several projects including the Peshawar–Karachi expressway. Work is also progressing on the construction of the New Eurasian Land Bridge economic corridor, an international railway line running from Lianyungang in China’s Jiangsu province through Alashankou in Xinjiang to Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
· Financial support
Financing of OBOR is coming on stream through different mechanisms. The initiative is supported by China’s Silk Road infrastructure fund of US$40bn, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), with registered capital of US$100bn; and the BRICS New Development Bank with an initial capital of US$50bn, which is set to increase to US$100 billion. Projects already financed include a Pakistan hydropower plant project. The second project is a US$7.7bn acquisition with China National Chemical Corporation (ChamChina) in industrial investment in Italian tire maker Pirelli & C.S.P.A. The third project is the acquisition of Russia’s Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas project. Some four billion of the initial Silk Road Fund was also invested in the construction of a modern standard-gauge rail link between Nairobi and Mombasa.
· Launch of China-Europe freight trains.
There has been a rapid expansion in rail freight traffic with more than 1500 freight trains in operation. Capacity has doubled in the past three years although there are problems with different rail gauges that slow down travel times. The freight trains pass through 10 cities in China and 7 countries along the route to 12 destinations in Europe. The freight trains transport cargo to their destinations three times faster than shipping by sea and for one-fifth of the cost of transport by air. Major lines in service include:
· Chongqing to Duisburg, Germany: 11,179 km taking 14 days.
· Chengdu to Łódź, Poland: 9,826 km taking 10 days.
· Zhengzhou to Hamburg, Germany: 10,399 km taking 17 days.
· Suzhou to Warsaw, Poland: 11,200 km taking 12 days.
· Wuhan to Lyon, France: 11,300 km taking 15 days.
· Yiwu to Madrid, Spain: 13,052 km taking 21 days.
· Harbin to Biklyan, Russia: 6578 km taking 10 days
· Harbin to Hamburg, Germany: 9820 km taking 15 days
· Xining to Antwerp, Belgium: 9838 km taking 12 days
· Increased trade and investment.
Most of the countries along the OBOR are at a critical phase for industrialization and urbanization. Since the implementation of the OBOR initiative, regional trade and investment has enjoyed rapid growth with an annual growth rate nearly twice as much as that of the world average. In 2015, Chinese enterprises directly invested $15bn in 49 countries involved in the OBOR initiative. All countries along the route are striving to increase trade and investment, and explore various types of free trade zones and closer economic integration. China is interested in new forms of industrial cooperation that may allow it to circumvent onerous regulations.
The World Bank considers that OBOR “could stimulate Asian and global economic growth by tackling poor infrastructure, low investment rates and poverty.” The HSBC research report puts the geographical scope of the OBOR project into perspective, noted that the countries along the land and sea routes on the Silk Road account for 63% of the world’s population and 59% of global GDP.  Trade between these countries and China reached more than $ one trillion in 2016 which is 26% of China’s total trade value; and President Xi Jinping is banking on annual trade between China and its OBOR partners surpassing $2.5trillion within the next decade. The same report notes that according to estimates by the China Development Bank (CDB), the number of cross-border co-operation projects envisaged by the Silk Road plan already exceeds 900 and involves 64 different countries. The total investment value of these projects, most of which are concentrated in the infrastructure sector, is estimated at $890bn.
Connectivity is the buzz word linking Europe and China and a central plank of the Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM). It is also at the core of OBOR with many transport, energy and telecommunication projects aiming to boost connectivity so as to create better conditions for cooperation. Some examples include the Hungary-Serbia railway, Jakarta-Bandung HSR and the Moscow-Kazan HSR. The China-Laos Railway, China-Thailand Railway, and other pan-Asia railway networks have started construction. A number of highways, port and aviation projects are also in progress. China is also promoting the construction of a cross-border transmission system along the OBOR and improvements in telecommunication networks.
· People-to-people and cultural exchanges.
China has set up government scholarships to nations along the Silk Road, held culture years and art festivals in turn with countries along the route, and carried out the “Silk Road Film Bridge Project” and the “Silk Road Book Translation Project. ” The combined world heritage application of the Silk Road was successfully completed, and China has launched the heritage application of the Maritime Silk Road. Tourism has also risen substantially between China and OBOR countries.
OBOR has major geostrategic, political and economic implications that the EU cannot ignore. During his visit to the EU in spring 2014, President Xi Jinping informed EU leaders about Beijing’s plans. They expressed interest in the initiative noting that it was very ambitious and would take a great deal of time and resources. In addition, the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation mandated both sides to strengthen their cooperation in ‘developing smart, upgraded and fully interconnected infrastructure systems,’ as well as ‘to explore models of infrastructure cooperation, including project bonds, project shareholding, joint contracting and co-financing, and further coordinate the cooperation among China, the EU and its Member States.’
OBOR presents both challenges and opportunities for the EU. In the trade sector, Chinese subsidised transport goods could represent unfair competition for EU companies, but opening up new EU-China trade routes could be beneficial for both sides. Beijing's willingness to finance infrastructure in the EU’s neighbourhood could be a win-win opportunity, if the right cooperation mechanisms are identified, and if pertinent rules, especially on transparency, are applied. The Chinese plan to develop stronger rail links between the port of Piraeus and the rest of the EU via the Balkans is a case in point.
Chinese SOEs have already made substantial investments in foreign seaports, taking control of some terminals. In Asia, Colombo (Sri Lanka), Chittagong (Bangladesh) Gwadar and Karachi (Pakistan) have all received investments which are helping to modernise their infrastructure and may give them a more prominent role in international trade routes. A similar approach seems likely for developing new ports in the Maldives. Cosco has shares in the ports of Singapore, Port Said and Djibouti (the two doors of the Suez Canal), but also in Piraeus and Antwerp.
As OBOR involves many countries with which the EU has a partnership it is clear that Brussels will follow developments closely to assess the likely positive and negative implications. There could well be implications for trade relations and possibilities for joint activities. China is already discussing related infrastructure projects with the central and east European countries under the 16+1 format. There will also be problem areas not least in the different approaches the EU and China have to financial assistance to third countries. But the message from the EU side is clear – a desire to work together with China wherever and whenever possible for mutual advantage.
Currently the buzz word is connectivity. The European Commission and the Chinese government have signed a MoU on the EU-China Connectivity Platform to enhance synergies between OBOR and the EU's connectivity initiatives such as the Trans-European Transport Network policy. The Platform will promote cooperation in areas such as infrastructure, equipment, technologies and standards, and it will be done in cooperation with the EIB. China also plans to contribute to the Commission's €315 billion Investment Plan for Europe and has recently joined the EBRD.
Many EU member states have been cautious in their response to OBOR. A recent report by several think tanks summaries the position of EU member states as follows. The UK views OBOR in a pragmatic manner as providing opportunities for British companies and financial institutions. This approach ties in with the UK’s enthusiastic application to join the new AIIB in 2015. In light of Brexit the UK government hopes to deepen economic links with China by different channels. In France, the government is keen to expand economic ties with China but OBOR is rarely mentioned in the media or by think tanks. Although Germany was an early target of high-level Chinese OBOR promotion activities, it has yielded few tangible benefits apart from a (largely rebranding) of railway projects linking the two countries. Berlin is increasingly worried at OBOR’s potential to dilute EU investment rules and to erode EU political unity. Germany is also watching carefully the impact of OBOR in Central Asia and Afghanistan. German industry has adopted a rather cautious approach towards OBOR while German press coverage has often been negative, focusing on concerns about China’s geopolitical ambitions in Eurasia. The Netherlands has also been cautious in its response to OBOR although there are growing railway and maritime links between China and the Netherlands.
In Italy, there is little discussion about OBOR although some business concerns are seeking to promote its opportunities. Portugal has taken a reactive position to OBOR while China has sought to invest in the port of Sines. In Spain there has been a more positive approach to OBOR from both government and business. There are three sectors in which Spain has expectations from OBOR; construction and management of large infrastructure projects; food exports and tourism.
References to OBOR are rare in Hungary although it likes to see itself as an important hub for the New Silk Road as it is more widely known. The underlying reason is that Budapest and Beijing mostly cooperate bilaterally eg Belgrade to Budapest railway, or under the framework of the 16+1 network of the Central and Eastern European countries and China. OBOR would mean a third layer or label, so political actors rarely mention it, while media sources tend to overlook it totally. The Slovak government has taken little interest in OBOR as the country is located outside the main corridors that China is planning to develop as part of the Silk Road project. In Denmark there has been little comment on OBOR although there are long-standing maritime links between the two countries. Sweden has also adopted a cautious wait-and-see approach with the government and business reluctant to become too involved.
The EU institutions have always been suspicious of Chinese attempts to circumvent EU rules and regulations by establishing mechanisms such as the 16+1 format. But Brussels also understood the desire of member states to secure as much investment from China as possible. Hence the EU strategy has been to welcome OBOR and seek areas of win-win cooperation such as the connectivity platform. The EU has also urged greater transparency for OBOR projects, especially those involving EU finance, and full compliance with EU, WTO and OECD guidelines. But OBOR is also viewed as competition for influence and economic advantage. Brussels fully understands that OBOR’s main objective is to develop China’s industries and exports in key sectors, particularly energy, transport and telecommunications. Obviously, the EU’s leverage over OBOR projects is greater when there are member states or association states involved in projects eg Hungary and Serbia. Overall there has been no common EU approach on OBOR. Some member states are more enthusiastic than others while the EU institutions have taken a supportive but cautious approach.
The major European media outlets have paid little attention to OBOR although it is followed more closely by the Brussels-based media. . OBOR has had reasonable coverage by European think tanks such as Carnegie Europe which issued a 2016 report stating that ‘the impact of OBOR on the European economy is widely thought to be slight—likely positive if the initiative is focused on improving transportation infrastructure, modestly negative if trade integration with China reduces European exports to Central and South Asia. Yet this view ignores both the ambition and the long-term impact of the project, once its purpose has been properly understood.’ Think tanks in Brussels have been more active in organizing OBOR events which are usually well attended.    
Along the Route
The reaction of countries along the various OBOR routes has been mixed. Russia, after initial reservations, has now accepted that it will go ahead and there might be some benefits for Moscow. India has been highly critical of OBOR, partly for the alleged lack of consultation, and partly for China’s readiness to shower money on Pakistan. China has invested heavily in the port of Gwadar and plans to upgrade road and rail links to Kashgar in the Xinjian autonomous region. The proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will give China direct access to the Indian Ocean and beyond. But there is some local Pakistani opposition to the Chinese investment with some locals fearing it could have negative consequences on their own employment prospects. There are also concerns that if the illiteracy rate is not tackled then there could be increased radicalization which might affect the various projects planned.
Pakistan, for its part, hopes the investment will boost its struggling economy and help end chronic power shortages. But there are questions over Pakistan's ability to absorb this investment given its chronic problems with militancy, separatism, political volatility and official corruption. China is worried about violence from ethnic Uighurs in its mostly Muslim north-western Xinjiang region and fears hard-line separatists could team up with Uighur Islamic militants fighting alongside members of Pakistan's Taliban. In Pakistan, a decade-old separatist insurgency in Balochistan province, where the economic corridor starts, makes that area extremely volatile.
While the OBOR involves the Middle East and Arabian states, it is very likely that China will need to deal with the devastated political turmoil, social unrest and transnational terrorism in the region, as well as ethnic tension within China. One Chinese expert, Hu Zhiyong, said terrorism is the “destabilizing force” and could have a “knock-on effect” in the South and Central Asia. Another expert, Siqi Gao argued that “one of the biggest problems is the Islamic Caliphate (ISIS), which has occupied large areas in the Middle East and threatened to include China’s Xinjiang as part of its territory”.
OBOR has a strong domestic context helping the CCP to buy time in order to reform the unsustainable social and economic model. Although OBOR has never been defined, which is perhaps a plus, it continues to enjoy strong support at the highest levels in China although there are some experts who doubt that it will continue to receive the same priority after President Xi leaves office. European opinion is more cautious and waiting to see whether concrete projects materialize. For countries along the route OBOR is generally viewed with positive eyes. AIIB president Jin Liqun estimates that Asian countries need around $8 trillion in expenditure by 2020 just to reach the world average. The AIIB has already issued loans of $1.73bn to nine infrastructure and energy projects in seven OBOR countries. OBOR also ties in with the connectivity aims of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and it would be useful to explore possible synergies. Equally there are several EU projects in central Asia (Inogate, Traceca, Bomca) that could be linked to OBOR.
OBOR is a grandiose initiative but there are many potential pitfalls and it is clear that far greater attention should be paid to political risk analysis for the successful implementation of OBOR. Some 70 countries have already joined the initiative and many have enjoyed a boost in trade with China. But many are under-developed countries and often demand Chinese commitment to bring in advanced technology regardless of their development stage. China’s shrinking foreign exchange reserves and the falling value of its currency may also affect the initiative. The Chinese should be wary of over-selling OBOR. Some official commentaries have tended to exaggerate the achievements to date.
Shared interests have led to China-Europe cooperation on OBOR. The popularity and success of OBOR initiative will depend not only on the economic gains and benefits, but also on successful cooperation on issues linked culture, tourism and people to people exchanges. The vision for OBOR is ambitious, but if well implemented, it has the potential to benefit the various countries and societies along the road, not least in promoting sustainable development. It could also have a major impact on EU-China relations.
OBOR is thus an ambiguous tool of Chinese domestic and foreign policy. It is powerful example of Chinese soft power. How China develops OBOR will help define the very nature of China as an actor in the 21st century OBOR will certainly be watched closely by the EU both for synergies to participate and to guard against threats to European interests. It has considerable implications on the political, security, trade, financial and environmental fronts. The EU will have to consider the best approach to engage with China in order to maximise synergies but one thing is clear - OBOR will figure as a major item in EU-China relations for the foreseeable future.
Fraser Cameron is Director and Rui Yan is a Research Fellow of the EU-Asia Centre in Brussels
Some Useful Sources on OBOR
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1. It is worth noting that the lead organization is the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)
 This paper uses the term OBOR although the Chinese now call it the Belt and Road Initiative. It is usually not good for branding to keep changing the name. The original New Silk Road was probably the best name to capture attention.
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