In 2013, China announced the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century – this initiative of “The Belt and Road” was designed to turn Asia and Europe into a single economic region. It focuses on the industries that are important for the internal growth in China and, at the same time, involves over 70 countries with a total population of 4.4 billion. Today, the initiative has already changed the economy of Eurasian countries significantly. Over the last seven years, the region got approximately $98 billion in investments in order to implement 168 projects.
What’s in it for China?
In recent years, China’s economic growth has slowed from double-digits to 6.4% in 2017. The wide-reaching economic model formerly in use (based on cheap labour, gross investment, and exports) has faced a number of serious challenges.
The country has to overcome industrial overproduction – steel making in China is a great example of this challenge. According to official data, China’s production capacity amounts to 1.1 billion tons per year, while internal demand is approximately 700 million tons, and China’s export partners cannot consume the remaining 400 million tons. The country needs to be provided with an access to new markets and to launch new resource-intensive projects.
In addition, Chinese authorities have been facing the problem of a sharp increase in labour cost. We live in a world where the average labour cost in China ($758) is higher than in Russia ($615). And it causes many multinational corporations to move their manufacturing facilities to other South-East Asian countries, such as Vietnam. China is losing its historical competitive edge – cheap labour, and analysts are increasingly talking about the risk of “stalling” in the trap of average income.
Furthermore, China needs to reduce its debt burden. The country is one of the world leaders in joint debt rating. In 2016, the total debt load in China amounted to $27 trillion, which equals 254% of the country’s GDP. Simultaneously, the amount of “bad” debt in the banking system is growing.
Social inequality and poor ecology exacerbate the situation further. For example, 1% of the wealthiest Chinese control roughly 33% of total national wealth, while 25% of the poorest Chinese possess just a mere 1%. Beijing sees as little as 124 clean days every year, while total environmental destruction amounts to 3.5-5% of China’s total GDP. In addition to a number of internal reforms adopted to create an economic model focused on domestic consumption, the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, proposed the “Belt and Road” initiative. Among other things, it is designed to stimulate domestic economic growth through external forces – ensuring access to Chinese products in new sales markets, natural resources, integration into complex production chains, exchange of advanced technologies, and the establishment of new high-tech manufacturing facilities in China. To do this, Chinese authorities are attempting to create a large-scale platform that will enable the expansion of trade and investment relationships, as well as technological cooperation between China and Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. This is believed to be a way for China to gain an access to the tools needed to overcome the economic development challenges described above.
China helped create powerful financial institutions in order to finance projects within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank with $100 billion in capital, and the Silk Road Foundation ($40 billion in capital). The New Development Bank (or BRICS Bank) is also seen as an important element of the Belt and Road projects’ financial infrastructure, which will also involve the participation of the largest Chinese state-owned banks and development institutions. The total budget for projects under the Belt and Road initiative is estimated at an astronomical $1.3 trillion. The bulk of these investments is expected to be sent to the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, which are key to the implementation of The Belt and Road initiative.
How will this Chinese initiative affect other countries?
The Belt and Road initiative will stimulate major infrastructure changes not only in China, but also in other countries through which the New Silk Road passes. There are expectations for the construction of new roads and railways, power plants, ports and fuel pipelines. The Chinese investments are expected to accelerate the growth of the economies of the countries participating in the Belt and Road initiative.This is precisely what is meant by mutually beneficial cooperation, or the “win-win” model, which Chinese officials often reference. Many believe in the efficacy of such a model. A total of 69 countries and international organizations have entered into agreements with China to cooperatively implement the framework of The Belt and Road initiative. In practice, cooperation is developing in several key areas.
In the long run, the Chinese government is striving to create a single integrated economic space, with the ultimate goal of establishing a free trade zone. Already, by the end of 2017, China’s trade turnover with the countries that signed cooperation agreements within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative exceeded $800 billion. To further integrate the economies of Asia and Europe, the creation of six economic corridors has been proposed. The main routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt will connect China with Mongolia and Russia, Indo-China, Pakistan, the Republic of Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, as well as Central and Western Asian countries. Today, goods from China are most commonly delivered by sea, taking approximately 45 days. The construction of modern highways and high-speed railways will shorten this delivery period to 10-15 days.
The most important project in this respect is the largest Central Asian land port – Khorgos. This facility is strategically located in Kazakhstan in the Free Economic Zone called “Khorgos – Eastern Gate”, which also includes logistics and industrial zones. China has invested over $3 million in this project, which saw the first trains come to port in 2015. It is expected that the majority of cargo trains traveling between China and Europe will pass through it in the future.
The formation of a modern transport and logistics infrastructure in the countries of Central Asia, the Caucasus and, even, Europe is a key component for the development of these national economies. Such projects enable China to unload their excess production capacity and deliver domestic goods to foreign markets. Not only large state-owned companies, but small and medium-sized businesses stand to gain as they provide services for complex projects implemented under the framework of the Belt and Road initiative. For example, since 2011 Chinese and European cargo trains have traveled through 28 cities in 11 European countries. Currently, there are more than 4,000 trips per year, and this number is expected to increase to 5,000 by 2020.
The Belt and Road initiative also takes into account the need to create new energy capacities – construction of interstate power lines, pipelines and gas pipeline systems, and the development of new energy-deposit fields.
One of the most promising projects in this area is Yamal LNG, the Russian liquified natural gas plant that was commissioned at the end of last year. The project’s budget is estimated at $27 billion with approximately $20 billion provided by Chinese banks, led by the Silk Road Foundation as the primary investor.
Additionally, the Power of Siberia gas pipeline is expected to be complete by the end of 2019 – it will enable Russia to supply China with 38 billion cubic meters of gas per year for 30 years. The pipeline, traversing the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Irkutsk and Amur regions, will become the largest gas transportation system in Eastern Russia, thanks to over $70 billion in investment by Russia and China.
According to online companies Ctrip and Alibaba, Chinese citizens took 129 million tourism trips abroad last year, spending a total of $118.4 billion. Implementation of the “One Belt, One Road” strategy will contribute to the influx of Chinese tourists to countries in the Eurasian Economic Union. Indicators of that influx are already growing. For example, last year a record number of Chinese tourists visited Russia – 1.5 million. However, it is important to note that the bulk of revenue generated as a result of serving Chinese tourists goes to Chinese businesses, not Russian ones, as Chinese travelers tend to buy tour packages and order guide services from home, paying either in cash or through national Chinese payment systems.
The Silk Road Economic Belt also fosters business cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries in the field of education. Today, 25% of all international students in Russia come from China. This indicates an especially high rate of international education collaboration with China as Russia’s share is a mere 2% of all Chinese students studying abroad (most still prefer European and American universities). China and the EEU countries are trying to solve the problem of a personnel shortage in the fields of economics, law and business, increasingly developing joint educational programs. For example, the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO runs specialized “Understanding Russia” programmes for Chinese entrepreneurs on how to effectively conduct business in Russia. Over 300 business leaders from China have been trained in this programme. In addition, in November, 2018 the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO and the business school of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology will launch “EMBA for Eurasia”, a cooperative programme designed for business leaders in Eurasia.
The most widely-accepted theories of economic growth see technological development as the main driver of modern economic growth. Within the Belt and Road initiative, a special role is played by the sharing of technologies and technological innovations. As of today, 75 industrial parks are under construction as a part of the initiative.
In 2015, a Chinese holding bought 65% of YotaPhone, the Russian smartphone manufacturer. China also actively collaborates with other Eurasian countries on innovative projects in the fields of biotechnology, photonics, biomedicine, LED, food and consumer goods. In essence, it means that “One Belt, One Road” propels the industries of the Eurasian region to a new technological level. For example, several organizations from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia are developing an innovative project to cool heavy-duty machinery – the so-called “double phase-shift cooling system” is being developed on a super-computer technology platform.
Work is being done in other areas as well, as seven belts are planned to be put in place, including financial and agricultural ones. In total, roughly one thousand different projects are expected to be implemented across different countries in the long term.
What are the barriers for implementing the strategy?
The Belt and Road is an initiative, not a project, meaning it has no defined goals or deadlines. China first mentioned its intention to establish the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century back in 2013, yet today, five years later, there is still no official information about the total number of projects or participating countries that should be involved, rendering the strategy somewhat amorphous. Unless the Belt and Road initiative is “institutionalized,” business can not use standard project and investment approaches, which makes it difficult to implement the overarching plan.
Furthermore, China is reducing investment in the Eurasian region. In 2013, the country allocated as much as $18 billion toward the project, but cut this amount down to $10 billion in 2016. If China had not invested in Iran’s nuclear program that year, this amount would have dropped to $5 billion. Such an approach makes predicting future investments challenging. The internal economic and political dynamics of China contribute to the challenge of forecasting the trajectory of the initiative – public and private investment banking institutions have begun to scrutinize these investment projects, as too much money was spent inefficiently or lost, drawing the attention of Chinese regulatory bodies.
Another important roadblock is the fact that some of the announced projects have not been a success. For example, the construction of a high-speed railway between Moscow and Kazan, which was originally designated as one of the priority projects for the Belt and Road, stalled. The construction of this Russian segment was supposed to be the first stage in building a railway between Moscow and Beijing, which was to be followed by an even more ambitious “Eurasia” railway project, connecting Beijing, Moscow and Berlin. Unfortunately, under current financial conditions, these projects are not economically viable, which halted their development at the feasibility study stage. This is a clear example of collaboration in which strategic ambitions outpace, or fail to take into account, the economic and investment feasibility of the Belt and Road projects.
Nevertheless, the initiative has emerged at the right time. At a time when protectionism is gaining momentum in international trade, China is driving an expansion of free market values, simplified customs and visa procedures, and the creation of transportation and logistics infrastructure that will ensure the quick and easy delivery of goods to new markets. This approach enables multilateral development at the domestic level and eliminates barriers to business that already seem archaic in the global world of the 21st century.