The Five Maps That Show The Challenges To China’s New Silk Road

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.

From Reuters:

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 

silkiland
Source: Reuters

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 

GDP Silk Road
On the left, the EU/NATO bloc enjoys a higher GDP; the Silk Road would cross much lower GDPs.

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

screen_shot_2014-07-14_at_4-18-00_pm_0
Too many regimes that might not be there much longer.

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

russian3
Source

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

 

if-youre-doing-business-in-china-heres-where-youll-find-most-corruption
Corruption level in business in China.  Source: Business Insider

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.

 

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5 thoughts on “The Five Maps That Show The Challenges To China’s New Silk Road”

  1. Haha, you are doing the Zeihan and Friedman thing of the “5 or 4 Maps that Explain the Situation”! It is great; I love how sometimes, extremely complex ideas can be summed up with a few maps. While not always the best tool to explain minutia and more personal happenings in a country (especially when dealing in years and not decades), I love how these maps show the overall difficulty of any plan laid by mice and me.

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  2. “Pakistan. Afghanistan and Iran are not well-rated on the Fragile States Index” and “some of the key players on the road might not be there in 10 or 20 years”?

    Iran has been stable since 1979. In this case perhaps FSI is an inaccurate index and Chinese are choosing to ignore it. Pakistan was supposed to have failed/collapsed by 2017 the latest according to every western pundit-it did not. Pakistan has a disciplined military and source of fragility has traditionally come from financial issues which China has apparently solved. In any event, CPEC is perhaps the most well-thought, well-funded (62 Billion and counting), detailed facet of the Silk Road pantheon. Afghanistan is not directly in the Silk Road plan and rightly so. All in all, some aspects of Silk Road project will succeed and some will not. Even so, China would have changed the global trade patterns and assumed a centrality rivaling Europe and North America.

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    1. I’d point out that Iran’s Green Revolution, though abortive, in 2009 was proof that the Iranian state is not as rock solid as it might appear. It is more flexible than other authoritarian states, allowing monitored elections, but that does not mean that it can’t come under enough geopolitical stress to have a major regime change.

      As for Pakistan, while I’m not a “Pakistan is doomed” kind of guy, glossing over the very real Taliban insurgency and the Baluch separatist movement as major threats to the country’s stability is a bit of an oversight. The United States dumped billions onto Pakistan for decades; it did not stabilize Pakistan. I don’t see Chinese money doing any better.

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  3. Fine structural argument. The only problem is men make structures. And we don’t see in this text what men will make regime changes, trouble in South China sea, who destabilized Syria and Ukraine, who will try to destabilize Iran, who is financing Kurds, who’s creating problems in Macedonia, who divided China and Russia in the past and think it will happen again etz…

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