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By Invitation

China's One Belt, One Road to challenge US-led order

Next month, what is likely to be this year's biggest international summit will convene in Beijing to discuss the world's most ambitious project. China's "Belt and Road Initiative" aims to redefine the global economy of the 21st century by integrating the economies of Europe, Asia and Africa through an unprecedentedly powerful network of transport and communications infrastructure.

Some estimates put the price tag at a trillion dollars, which would make it one of the biggest, if not the biggest, economic development programme in history, far overshadowing America's Marshall Plan which rebuilt Europe after World War II.

No wonder so many world leaders are turning up in Beijing to claim a piece of it. China's Foreign Minister recently announced that 110 countries would be represented, including no fewer than 28 national leaders. They include the presidents of Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Pakistan and the Philippines from Asia, and many others from Europe and Africa. It is going to be a very notable gathering.

Among countries not sending their national leaders are the United States, Japan, India, most West European countries, Australia and Singapore. They will all be represented, but at more junior levels. It is no coincidence that these countries are aligned with America and uneasy about China's rise - or perceived to be so.

So plainly there is a lot going on here beyond simple economics. To many people, China's Belt and Road Initiative (or "One Belt, One Road" as it is also known) is not really about economics at all. It is all about expanding China's strategic and political influence at America's expense. That's probably half right, but we should not overlook the powerful economic logic that underpins the geopolitical calculations.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

In fact, there are several economic imperatives driving China's Belt and Road Initiative. They include the need to foster development in China's own more remote and underdeveloped regions, and the hope of finding outlets for China's massive overcapacity in key industries like steel-making.

But the key motive is much bigger and more ambitious than these. China wants to consolidate its position at the centre of the global supply and manufacturing networks which will be the key to the global economy over the coming decades. Beijing understands that as China's economy matures and its income levels rise, the lower-wage industries which have fuelled China's growth so far will migrate to less-developed countries where labour costs are lower.

China's economic planners do not want to fight that trend, but turn it to China's advantage by building itself an impregnable place at the centre of the expanding supply-chain web which will result from it. That way, it can capture the lion's share of more sophisticated higher-wage economic opportunities.

The Belt and Road Initiative is central to this vision, and therefore to realising China's ambition to become a middle-income country. And it meshes with and mutually reinforces China's parallel ambition to take the lead over the coming decades in developing key technologies and setting global standards - including for such critical elements of infrastructure as high-speed rail and data networks.

Of course, all of this is so far just a bold vision. Making it a reality will require an extraordinary alignment of financial resources, technical skills, political commitment and international cooperation. None of these can be taken for granted, so a degree of healthy scepticism is therefore in order.

And yet we'd be unwise to dismiss the Belt and Road Initiative as a mere pipe dream. It has the power and prestige of President Xi Jinping behind it. It is at the centre of his vision for China, and of his ambition to transform China's place in the world during his time as its leader. He is determined to make it work, and in China today that counts for a great deal.

Plainly, many countries around the world think that it needs to be taken seriously, which is why so many leaders will be there in Beijing next month. And already it is starting to change both the geo-economic and the geopolitical landscape.

We can see its geo-economic implications by comparing what the Belt and Road Initiative tells us about China's vision of its economic future with the policies of the Trump administration and what they tell us about America's economic vision.

While President Xi prepares to welcome the world to Beijing to promote a plan to export low-income jobs in industries like steel-making to other countries, and shift Chinese workers into higher-income ones, President Donald Trump is launching a plan to lock out imports of steel so as to revive America's steel industry. He wants to put US workers back into the jobs that Beijing wants to move Chinese workers out of.

The contrast could not be starker. America wants to shrink its role in the global economy and cling to old industries, while China wants to expand its global role and move its economy into new ones. No prizes for guessing which of these visions is more likely to succeed.

And that brings us back to the geopolitical and strategic equation. Clearly the leaders who are choosing to stay away from Beijing next month are right to fear that the Belt and Road Initiative has immense geopolitical significance. Even if it delivers on just a fraction of its aspirations it will become a powerful instrument for Chinese influence in Asia and beyond, and go a long way to consolidate its claims to international leadership at America's expense.

But those leaders are wrong to imagine that they can stop that happening just by staying away. They have to offer an alternative. If America and its allies are really determined to resist China's challenge to the old US-led liberal global order, they have to counter Beijing's powerful vision of a future global economy centred on China. And to do that they need an equally powerful and ambitious global economic vision of their own.

• The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline 'China's One Belt, One Road to challenge US-led order'. Print Edition | Subscribe