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Back to the Future: China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative

By Vassilis Ntousas, International Relations Policy Advisor at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies

Since its introduction in the fall of 2013, China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative has been the centre of a plethora of in-depth analyses and policy announcements. Heralded by many as a centrepiece of President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy and domestic economic strategy, this grandiose initiative has certainly captured the attention of many policy-makers, analysts and commentators, marking a significant milestone in the country’s trajectory of engagement in the international milieu. Whether China’s grand design for its new trade routes will ultimately become a game-changer remains to be seen, yet its ‘back-to-the-future’ approach contained in its OBOR policy presents many potential benefits for Beijing, despite the evident risks. …
 
China’s (potential for a) game changer
 
Highly ambitious in its goals and Herculean in its proportions, the OBOR initiative has been characterised as the ‘most significant and far-reaching initiative that China has ever put forward’. If played correctly by China, the initiative has the potential of being much more than its individual parts, elevating China both economically but also politically. For Beijing, OBOR’s added value could be multi-faceted, ranging from creating new markets through economic penetration, widening the trading and commercial horizons to export Chinese surpluses, improving the innovation and competitiveness of Chinese industries, whilst providing the necessary impetus, vision, and know-how for a more coherent regional policy aimed at alleviating internal inequalities amongst provinces and for a more active and better-founded foreign policy that will promote the Chinese interests in a more reliable and efficient manner.
 
Inherent in the project’s vision and scope, both in its continental and its maritime component, one can also trace the many obstacles that exist and that will largely decide the project’s future success. Although the initiative is still in its early stages, critics point to the its sheer size and ambition as the source of many vexing challenges: from the incredibly varied political, economic, legal and regulatory framework within which OBOR will have to function, to the political uneasiness, if not antipathy, it could create in many areas along its routes. Regardless of the levels of financial firepower that will be employed, building a network of Sino-centric trading routes along a milieu of great diversity and even greater risks will lead China to engage more actively with regional affairs. If the initiative succeeds, whether it is the intention of Beijing or not, this will create both an opening and an additional layer of risk: China’s rise, not least in the economic sphere, will embolden the country’s position internationally, yet, as the eyes of the world focus more on China, there will be a greater degree of scrutiny regarding its praxis in the region. Whether China’s Grand Design for its new trade routes will ultimately become a game-changer remains an open question, yet its ‘back-to-the-future’ approach contained in its OBOR policy presents many potential benefits for Beijing, despite the evident risks.

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