One Belt, One Road and the Future of Asia
The silk road was a massive trading system that stretched throughout Eurasia, from China and India, through Central Asia, and into the Middle East and Europe. From roughly 100 BC to 1500 AD, it served as an important conduit for the world economy. Eastern knowledge and raw material alike flowed along land corridors, as well as oceanic passages across the Indian Ocean. This was among the first instances of globalization, where cultures and civilizations intermingled and traded. However, with the destruction of the Mongol and Byzantine Empires in the 1400s, and the rise of the Ottomans, the silk road decayed and declined. The discovery of the New World was the final straw, as Europe soared to the top of the global economy. Trade started to flow in the opposite direction, with European mercantilism ramming goods into the far east. By 1950, the United States produced much of the world’s products, while much of the Far East was poor and backward. China had just concluded a bloody civil war, while much of Asia was recovering from Japanese conquests during World War II.
But Xi Jinping, China’s ambitious leader, wants to revive the silk road with his One Belt, One Road initiative. Simplified, the One Belt One Road initiative plans to invest hundreds of billion dollars in infrastructure projects across Africa, Asia, and Europe. This includes shipping lanes stretching across the oceans and further connecting East Asia to Europe and Africa, as well as rail and road links over land. Examples include a deep-sea port in Sri Lanka, a 3.2 billion dollar rail line in Kenya, and the China-Pakistan economic corridor. China also plans to build gas pipelines across Central Asia, along with additional ports and high speed rail systems.
China is one of the strongest nations on Earth. Militarily, it only loses out to the United States. But it lacks in soft power. Many Asian countries are suspicious of China, and China has border disputes with numerous countries. Many western nations view China in a negative light, due to its authoritarian government and support for North Korea. Taiwan is still a major issue between China and the western world.
The success of One Belt One Road could change all of that. By investing in their own infrastructure, China has paved the way for 700 million people (and counting) to be lifted out of poverty. If China manages to repeat this feat in other poor Asian nations, its soft power would increase drastically. While its soft power among Western nations could increase, this really isn’t China’s goal. China wants regional influence, and doesn’t want to occupy the “world policeman” role that the United States currently fills. It wants hegemony over Asia.
Asian hegemony goes against the interests of three powers: Russia, the United States, and India. We will start with Russia, who currently is a large player in Central Asia, but is rapidly losing ground to China. The reason behind this is simple. Russia simply cannot economically compete with Chinese investment. China’s economy is several times larger than Russia’s. Also, Russia has spent much of its efforts trying to curtail NATO’s expansion and regain some sort of authority in Eastern Europe. Thus, with the success of One Belt One Road, it is likely that China gains hegemony over Central Asia.
The United States, meanwhile, has interests in East Asia. It has allies in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea. The America First initiative by the Trump administration, along with Trump’s recent trip to Asia, seems to suggest that Trump has a greater focus on North Korea, with the denuclearization of the peninsula being a top priority. As for Trump’s policy with regards to Chinese hegemony, much remains to be seen. The usage of the phrase, “free and open Indo-pacific” could suggest that Trump wants India to fill a greater role in countering China, while the US withdraws to pursue its own interests. However, overall Trump’s actual policy seems extremely vague, with much to be seen.
This brings us to India, a massive, rapidly growing nation with over a billion people, but plagued with various internal problems. Regardless, India is quite possibly the only country that can balance out China - the US appears to be withdrawing from the world stage, while Russia is dealing with problems in Europe. Accordingly, the United States is willing to provide help to India, in the form of F-16 and F-18 jets to counter the Chinese threat. India also has powerful allies in Japan and Australia, who together form the quad alliance along with the United States. Furthermore, India has a plan of its own to connect Asia - the North-South Transport Corridor. Given all of this, whether India can counter China depends on a number of factors. The future is highly unpredictable in this regard.
China’s One Belt, One Road initiative is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the infrastructure and free trade it brings to Asian countries will certainly be beneficial, and could cause an economic boom. On the other hand, it is a threat to other Asian powers, which could result in a “mini-Cold war” in Asia. With an ascendant China and India, a withdrawing United States, and a declining Russia, the future of Asia is anything but certain.