It’s the geopolitical dream of every Third Way thinker since Mao: a non-European superpower finally taking the rug out from the dastardly Western imperialists.
Xi said China’s Belt and Road plan would be open to all. He said deep-seated problems in global development had yet to be addressed effectively, with international trade and investment sluggish, and economic globalization encountering headwinds.
In the wake of Trump, there’s plenty of anti-American schadenfreude as well. Having pulled out of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, which might have solidified America’s grasp on the economy of the Pacific, even Americans mumble the world belongs to China.
But not so fast. China’s Belt and Road initiative is ambitious, but it’s no silver bullet to American power. The following maps explain why.
Map 1: The initiative itself crosses a lot of hot spots
The Silk Road Economic Belt has a lot of borders to cross, few of which are super stable. The current route must cross from Iran to Turkey, and it’s increasingly likely these two will be rivals, not friends, as they compete for the greater Middle East. That means border closures and plenty of delays. What if Iran stirs up trouble in Turkish Kurdistan, or Turkey in Iranian Kurdistan? That won’t exactly make a great trucking route.
The Chinese are also hoping that EU states and Ukraine will remain open to Russian trade. Yet sanctions against Moscow are in vogue, and so long as there’s civil war in Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and Kiev, one shouldn’t exactly invest in companies hoping to ship goods across that border.
The Martine Silk Road Initiative has the same kind of simmering blockades underneath the supposedly placid surface. Beijing plans to use Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur as major bases for its route west, yet these are the very countries which it is competing for control of the South China Seas. What’s to stop them from holding trade hostage to get what they want? Sure, one can argue the whole point of the Belt and Road Initiative is to make that impossible; so too was the WTO. Yet that hasn’t stopped China from manipulating the WTO to its benefit; there’s little reason to believe those who might join this new Silk Road won’t leverage it against China as well.
Map 2: The Rentier State Trap
The Chinese plan is to build, quite literally, a road, rail, and port system between East and West, linking the two richest regions of the planet. Yet that will cross a great deal of poorer territory, and in doing so will risk creating a rentier trap that will siphon Chinese power towards geopolitical jobs it would rather avoid.
This happened to the United States over the Panama Canal and to Britain over the Suez Canal. It’s also present to a different extent with the Gulf Arab-U.S. relationship: Gulf Arab states, unable to develop to self-sufficiency, are totally dependent on American protection to survive. It’s a pretty simple process: China could set up ports that become the biggest source of a country’s income. The country’s entire economy distorts towards running that port and develops little else. China becomes addicted to keeping those ports open. China is forced to deploy hard power to keep the governments of those ports running (as the U.S., for example, has troops in Bahrain and helps patrol the Sinai).
This rentier trap could expose China to threats that would throw off an attempt to try to overcome the American superpower. Could Sunni supremacists turn on Beijing as heartily as they have Washington? Could new, still-hidden identitarians declare war on ethnic Han? Surely they don’t have as much incentive now, but the growth of Chinese power along this new Silk Road will surely provide opportunity.
Map 3: The fragile regime problem
The Silk Road initiative has another problem: even if it can get states to agree, some of the key players on the road might not be there in 10 or 20 years. Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran are not well-rated on the Fragile States Index, mapped above. Long-term strategy requires stability and reliability. Regimes may come and go; they may change their minds about deals with China to try to survive.
If China cannot get its smaller trade deals to stick, it has no hope of building stronger, more permanent alliances like NATO.
Map 4: Russia’s interest in Central Asia
Russia continues to see Central Asia as its strategic and economic backyard. When the United States set up bases there to support the Afghan war in 2001, it created a sense of worry in Moscow that America was coming to surround Russia in its own former Soviet domain. That helped prompt the reactions we now see in Ukraine and Syria.
But at least America wasn’t trying to corner the Central Asian market. China is Russia’s biggest competitor in Central Asia, and the fragility of local regimes there mean that the strongmen bend whichever way the winds are blowing. Russia is unlikely to see increased Chinese influence as an asset: instead, it will return the Sino-Russian competition that once prompted czarist Russia to invade the region.
Map 5: Corruption in China itself
And this one will be toughest to address. Presume then that China finds a way to overcome the coming Turkish-Iranian spats, the Indian-Pakistani flares, the rentier state problem, the fragile states issue, and Russia’s permanent sense of insecurity. Still then China itself is a major obstacle to the success of a new Silk Road.
Corruption in China is no secret; what is perhaps less obvious is that any major economic project that China takes on is both more expensive and less likely to succeed because of it. When Silk Road-friendly companies find themselves being taken advantage of by corrupt Chinese businesses, they could well bolster protectionist and nativist leaders back home. The Trumpian currency manipulator complaint could go large; leaders in places like India could win elections bashing Beijing, while authoritarians might be tempted to close off access to Chinese goods to win easy points among their suddenly nativist elite.
That’s presuming China doesn’t misspend its own cash on projects nobody wants because corrupt insiders benefit. Imagine how many roads and bridges to nowhere they could construct on the way to Europe, how many ghost cities could erupt along highways nobody needs.
And that’s assuming corruption won’t eventually be part of what pulls the Communist regime down. No state is permanent; one way or another, the government of China must change. That may be a hundred years from now, or it may be much sooner. If it happens sooner, it will upend any centralized focus on regaining China’s geopolitical dominance.
Overly centralized states like China have a poor track record with mega-projects like this. The czars built the Trans-Siberian Railway; Britain tried a pan-African rail; neither preserved regimes or empires in the long run.
There is also a more distant possibility, though no less real. SpaceX has a reusable rocket; how long until spaceports dominate commerce, and all of China’s rails and ports and highways are rendered moot? Better big on a new Silk Road might the last white elephant of a regime grasping at geopolitical straws.