As China’s economy has advanced, and as its poverty levels have inexorably declined, we find the issue of common prosperity, for both China’s neighbours as well as for the wider world, increasingly coming to the fore. Chinese leaders and officials are increasingly saying that they do not wish to see a world where only China is prospering and where the rest of humanity is failing to enjoy the fruits of development or is even mired in conflict, turmoil and war. In fact, such a world simply could not exist.
China is, therefore, increasingly taking the lead in the creation of new institutions, designed not to supplant existing bodies but to supplement them, and based on broad and inclusive participation. By far the most ambitious initiative that China has unveiled is President Xi Jinping’s concept of the Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the new silk roads. Spanning the three continents of Asia, Europe and Africa, and embracing at least 65 countries, this revival of ancient trade routes, which first took shape when the Chinese dynasties of the East were complemented by the Roman Empire in the West, and by the Persian and other great civilisations along the way, is also at the same time strikingly modern in its desire to uphold global free trade and an open world economy and to enhance regional cooperation based on market principles.
So, this is a new idea, but one with an ancient lineage. As the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China have jointly observed:
“More than two millennia ago the diligent and courageous people of Eurasia explored and opened up several routes of trade and cultural exchanges that linked the major civilisations of Asia, Europe and Africa, collectively called the Silk Road by later generations. For thousands of years, the Silk Road Spirit – ‘peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit’ - has been passed from generation to generation, promoted the progress of human civilisation, and contributed greatly to the prosperity and development of the countries along the Silk Road. Symbolising communication and cooperation between the East and the West, the Silk Road Spirit is a historic and cultural heritage shared by all countries around the world.”
China’s initiative to jointly build the Belt and Road, embracing the trend towards a multipolar world, economic globalisation, cultural diversity and greater IT application, aims at being highly efficient in terms of the allocation of resources and at achieving a deep integration of markets among the countries concerned, thereby jointly creating an open, inclusive and balanced regional economic cooperation architecture that benefits all.
According to the vision of the Chinese government, the Belt and Road Initiative is in line with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter. It upholds the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, namely mutual respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
The initiative is an open one. It covers, but is not limited to, the area of the ancient Silk Road. It is open to all countries, and international and regional organisations, so that the results will benefit wider parts of the globe as well.It is harmonious and inclusive. It advocates tolerance among civilisations, respects the paths of development chosen by different countries, and supports dialogues among different civilisations on the principles of seeking common ground whilst reserving differences and drawing on each other’s strengths, so that all countries can coexist in peace for common prosperity.
The new silk road is envisaged to go in five directions:
- From north west and north east China through Central Asia and Russia to the Baltic Sea;
- From north west China through Central Asia and the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean;
- From south west China through the Indochina peninsula, Malaysia and Singapore to the Indian Ocean;
- From the Chinese ports, through the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca to the Indian Ocean and westwards from there, for example to East Africa;
And by the same route, but then on to the South Pacific from the Straits of Malacca.Six economic corridors are envisaged:- From north east China through Mongolia and Russia to the Baltics;
- From the coastal provinces through western China to Central Asia and then to Russia and the Baltics;
- From north west China through Xinjiang, Central and West Asia to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean;
- From Yunnan and Guangxi Zhuang in south west China through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore;
- From China through Pakistan, entering the Indian Ocean through the port of Gwadar;
- And, through Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, entering the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal.
These new silk routes will embrace – and will require major investments in – railways, highways, sea transportation, pipelines and the information superhighway and connectivity.To translate this grand vision into reality will require trillions of dollars of investment in infrastructure and in all sectors of the economy in the more than 60 countries directly encompassed within the new silk road initiative, as well as further afield. Cumulatively it represents the greatest business opportunity in the contemporary world.Across three great continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, the new silk roads will create new routes and connections by using the three highs, namely:
- High speed trains;
- High speed energy transmission; and
- High speed connectivity and communications
We are talking here about a revolution in infrastructure, technology and connectivity, such as the world has never seen before, bringing unparalleled development and prosperity and affording unprecedented investment and growth opportunities.
Of course one cannot deny that many of the countries and regions embraced within the new silk roads are today mired in wars and conflicts. From Central Asia to the Middle East and beyond, there presently exists a veritable arc of crisis, where ancient and modern rivalries coalesce, seemingly inexorably, into ever greater hatreds and ever more desperate acts of viciousness and cruelty. One need only mention a few of the names – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Ukraine. And too many more. The future promise of the new silk roads will, therefore, not be attained easily and the difficulties and obstacles should never be under-estimated. Yet it is not naïve to hold out this vision for the future. Viewed correctly, it might rather be said to be a supreme act of realism. For without hope, without development, without knowledge, without prosperity, how can there ever be lasting peace; how can hatred ultimately make way for coexistence, mutual respect and friendship?
The new silk roads are designed precisely to connect Asia and Europe as never before and if opportunities are correctly identified and grasped, they can also provide a huge boost for the UK and other western economies.
Our opportunities will be comparatively greater in the more sophisticated added value of the latter stages of adding refined finishes to urbanisation and the various advanced and high tech products and services that characterise its lifestyle. As you journey through China, you can see that the world’s latest technologies and products still tend to be mainly Western or Japanese. Although China is determined to become an innovative country, is investing massively in R&D, and will certainly succeed in making the move from a model of Made in China to one of Created in China, these things take time. Moreover, the most advanced, dynamic and creative sectors of the western economies, represented, for example, by Silicon Valley, by the Apples and Microsofts, are certainly not standing still either. Although it is changing, China is still, in many cases, the point of final assembly in global production, with comparatively little value added. China’s extensive purchase and usage of high-end Western and Japanese technologies and products has made a crucial contribution to its development. This will be replicated along the countries of the belt and road.
If we are to navigate the complexities of globalisation, we all need investment opportunities for capital, suitable imports to benefit our economies and to meet our needs, and thriving markets of people able to purchase the goods that we produce for export as well as to avail of our services. In a word, we sink or swim together. It is long past time for ‘zero sum’ solutions to give way to ‘win win’ outcomes.
Author: Mr Keith Bennett
Consultant on North Korea and China