On the evening of Thursday 22 June 2017 I went to White & Case in London for a presentation on the New Silk Road, formally known as Belt & Road Initiative (joining together 2 announcements in 2013 of i) a Silk Road Economic Belt, and ii) 21st Century Maritime Silk Road – Note 1). This is a project to link China through Asia (India and SE Asia) to Middle East/ Europe and Africa.
While it is a Chinese project it requires the active participation of many countries and a new model of openness in planning and policy co ordination for development. Over 100 countries have expressed support and willingness to participate. It will involve over 60% of the world’s population.
There were several ambassadors (China, Indonesia and Singapore) present who spoke about their governments view of the project.
The core of the land project was infrastructure of roads and rail, to encourage trade and development. Apart from land and rail the project also includes energy and information networks/connectivity. Cultural, social and educational aspects are not ignored and these will likely generate significant impact. Chinese officials express the view that the best way to encourage peace is through development and co-operation.
There were three major aspects that were highlighted over and over again by the speakers. These were:
1) that the project was massive or ‘humungous’ as one speaker put it, estimated at US$2-3 trillion.
2) that the project was designed on a collaborative model involving the creation of consensus and active participation of the countries along the Silk Road.
3) that the scale of risks involved would require serious attention by all the major participants. As the Chinese Ambassador put it, there are great risks associated with the project but nothing is achieved without risk.
As the Indonesian Ambassador clearly expressed it, there was a major role to be played by the Asian Investment Bank. Diplomatically, he said the Asian Investment Bank had no intention to compete with the World Bank. I understand. I have no intention to compete with the World Bank either.
Singapore, according to the High Commissioner, was a little overwhelmed by the importance of the role it has been assigned given its small size.
This is a grand project with a transformative agenda that will shape the world this century. It proposes a model for international development of collaboration and openness which is far different from the neo-mercantilist, neo-liberal orthodoxy where despite high sounding words winner takes all and beggar thy neighbour is the mantra.The quiet confidence and self deprecation in the Chinese Amabassador’s voice clearly conveyed that this project was definitely happening.
Where is the African response?
China has built the Ethiopian- Djiboutu electric railway which it considers part of the new Silk Road but generally Africans are not engaging with the initiative diplomatically, intellectually, strategically or tactically. This is a potentially tragic waste of an opportunity. While it is true that Kenya and Ethiopia have taken some baby steps they have taken these from a national perspective which contradicts the spirit of the new silk road. The new silk road cannot end at Lamu and Djibouti. They should have been harassing the West African countries to join them. Africa needs trans African connections as it is often quicker and cheaper to trade with Europe than some neighbouring African countries. These inter-African links should be to a world standard in terms of rail gauges and network configuration and should lead to major export markets. The Belt and Road Project would integrate such African proposals into an almost world wide network in one step and ally them with strategic funding, planning and technology.
Can someone open the curtains in African Cabinet Offices. There are too many people asleep.
1. ‘Building The Belt and Road’ May 2017 Beijing.building belt and road beijing may2017
2. Ethiopian -Djibouti Railway