China’s Belt and Road Show an Expanding Girth

President Xi Jinping has been in Saudi Arabia, a country described by one enthusiastic mainland reporter as a meeting place of One Belt One Road, a reference to the overland belt and maritime road by which China proposes to embrace Eurasia and even Africa.

That raises the issue of how this slogan posturing as a policy actually translates into practice. Who is actually included in it? If it is just a slogan, maybe precision does not matter. But Hong Kong’s ever-obedient Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, in his recent annual policy address went so far as to offer HK$1 billion in scholarships to students from Belt/Road. So now his bureaucrats must come up with a list of those eligible.

Leung’s speech was remarkable for its more than 40 references to “Belt/Road”, drawing derision not simply from critics of Beijing but from Hong Kong citizens anxious to hear some policies specifically relevant to them. Leung’s adhesion to this repetitive script was also in contrast to the singular lack of attention he has previously devoted to Hong Kong’s relations with its Asian neighbors. His speeches have hitherto always focused on the importance of relations with the motherland. But now he has to get out a map and figure what can be done to put some flesh on the Belt/Road slogan.

Definition is indeed difficult for anyone. A variety of maps has appeared identifying various places on the land and sea routes, some including eastward diversions into island Asia even including the Philippines. By one calculation Belt/Road now encompasses about 65 countries with a total population of 4.4 billion. Others simply include the various places where China has promised to commit money to land or sea transport infrastructure, mainly railways, pipelines and ports. Others still that it includes anywhere in Eurasia, island southeast Asia and the east coast of Africa.

The land route is relatively straightforward, at least in theory. Thus it includes Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and perhaps even the eastern members of the European Union, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia before terminating in Germany. Some of these are contiguous but in practice they mostly involve a Russian-dominated rail and road system, and some projects which make no sense without great harmony, particularly in the Caucasus, which currently hardly exists.

The Belt idea is driven by the assumption that trade between China and these countries will continue to grow rapidly and with it Chinese influence underpinned by money for infrastructure. But the reality is that China’s demand for materials – the main exports of all the non-EU Belt countries – is at best stagnating and unlikely to grow much as the Chinese economy becomes less export dependent and more focused on services and consumer goods. The Belt countries have limited growth potential given their small – and in the case of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine – static or shrinking populations.

The overland route from China to Europe may be faster than sea and cheaper than air. But is also more expensive then sea and slower than air – and may be further undermined if global warming opens the Arctic Sea passage to China/Europe trade.

The southern maritime route obviously includes the places which for nearly two millennia have figured on the journey between Guangdong and the Mediterranean: coastal Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Java, Sumatra, Singapore and the Malay peninsula, Sri Lanka, southern India, coastal Iran, the Gulf sultanates, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Israel seems to be off the map despite China’s good relations with it.

Myanmar, India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Pakistan Iran and Saudi Arabia also all qualify to be on the Road as well as the Belt. Whether they want to be – India in particular which has its own Belt/Road history – is another matter. Nor will any amount of Chinese “friendship” and money bridge divides such as between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Then what about Africa, long a waypoint between Southeast Asia, India and Europe? The Belt/Road maps mostly identify Kenya, far south though it is, when historically Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia were at least as important. Does Tanzania, heir to Zanzibar qualify? And Mozambique and South Africa? And if so why not add Mauritius, the Maldives and Madagascar – though the last might be a painful reminder to China of how Indonesians were sailing these seas a thousand years before Chinese.

Other spurs given on some Belt/Road maps go southeast from China to the Philippines, eastern Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon islands.

All of which emphasises that President Xi has come up with a clever if awkward slogan which appeals to Chinese nationalism but can also be seen by countries on the Belt/Road as a source of cheap money for infrastructure. And scholarships – assuming Hong Kong’s indecisive bureaucrats can decide who qualifies for the Belt/Road awards.