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Introduction and History Launched in 2013, the One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR or BRI) is a Chinese foreign policy of a transnational economic belt. The scale of the initiative is astonishing for it is so far the largest of its kind launched by one single country. The OBOR consists of two parts: The Silk Road Economic Belt, historically it was a route for ancient China to communicate and trade with Central Asia and the Middle East over 2000 years ago, with the first record of the Silk Road can be dated from Han dynasty, when emperor Wudi send Zhang Qian from west China to the Middle East. Another segment is the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which is a maritime route that goes around Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Horn of Africa. In summary, more than two-thirds of the world population and more than one-third of global economic output will be involved in the initiative and could involve Chinese investments that total up to $4 trillion.
For many in the region, the Silk Road is a story of peaceful trade and a rich history of religious and harmonious cultural exchange. The Belt and Road seek to directly build on this legacy. It rests upon a historical narrative that connectivity — both cultural and economic — reduces suspicion and promotes common prosperity, an idea that is being eagerly taken up by states concerned about civil unrest, both within and across their borders. In November 2015, Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, chose UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris to announce the country’s new Academy of Peace, stating that “we can best counter extremism through inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.” The other segment of the BRI, the marine time silk road also plays an important role both historically and currently. One of the most famous historical figures in Chinese history is Admiral Zheng He, embodies China’s grand narrative of region-wide trade, encounter, and exchange. A Muslim eunuch who led seven fleets across to South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and West Africa between 1405 and 1433 during the Ming dynasty, Zheng He is widely celebrated as a peace envoy in both China and by the overseas Chinese living in Malaysia, Indonesia, and elsewhere. In addition to the museums, mosques, and artifacts now appearing around the region celebrating his voyages, China has given millions of dollars to Sri Lanka and Kenya to support the search for remains of Zheng He’s fleet. Both countries are key nodes in the modern-day Belt and Road infrastructure network, with China financing the construction of deepwater ports in Colombo and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Lamu in Kenya.
The One Belt, One Road initiative consists of several economic and some non-economic elements. The initiative should promote five major goals which are: “policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds.” Among the five goals, “facilities” (infrastructure) is perhaps the most significant since it provides the necessary means for attaining many of the other goals mentioned above. The most frequently mentioned economic element is a Chinese commitment to invest heavily in a wide variety of infrastructure projects in order to strengthen the economic capacity and “connectivity” among the nations within the One Belt, One Road area and with China’s western regions.
For example, There are several mechanisms designed entirely or in part to support such infrastructure development, including the Silk Road Fund and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). More broadly, from the perspective of China’s overall development policies, the One Belt, One Road concept is seen by many Chinese media as a major element of the economic reform process. Shortly after being announced, the initiative was explicitly linked to Chinese reforms in a decision of the 18th CCP Conference in November 2013.
The decision stated that China would “set up development-oriented financial institutions, accelerate the construction of infrastructure connecting China with neighboring countries and regions, and work hard to build a Silk Road Economic Belt and a Maritime Silk Road, so as to form a new pattern of all-round opening.” In this official paper of the Chinese government, it was also declared that “Central Asia, Russia, South Asia, and Southeast Asian countries will be given priority consideration . . . while Middle Eastern and East African countries are in the junction” linking the Asian with European countries. Another major feature of the One Belt, One Road initiative is that it is intended to be as open and inclusive as possible, apparently involving few if any requirements or restrictions, and to exist in cooperation with, and not against, other international development initiatives. In stressing the open and cooperative nature of the One Belt, One Road initiative, much Chinese media uses the metaphor of a “symphony,” involving the participation of many countries, and not a “solo” effort by China alone.
However, the initiative was described as a “response” to the new geopolitical situation marked by the U.S. “rebalance to Asia,” Japan’s accelerated “steps toward normalization,” India’s rapid economic growth, and increasing worries toward a stronger China among China’s “neighboring Asian countries.” From this geopolitical perspective, the One Belt, One Road initiative can be seen as a new kind of “strategy” designed to support the larger effort announced by Xi Jinping, to strengthen Beijing’s periphery diplomacy and create a “new type of major country relations,” both of which are based on intensive cooperation and a zero-sum (i.e., “win-win”) approach to international politics and economics. Since the rising of China, most countries in the Asia-Pacific region followed the option of trying to integrate China into existing and new regional and global institutions such as the RCEP, or ASEAN plus.
The US under Trump administration has been explicitly rebalancing its international posture toward Asia and China by returning to a bilateral approach to both diplomatic and economic policies. In early 2017, shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, the US declared to withdraw from the TPP (Transpacific Partnership), which had been a foreign policy priority of the Obama administration to strengthen the leadership of the US in the Asia-Pacific area. Trump’s bilateral approach to foreign relations is predicted to lead to decreasing influence of the US in Asia, for the ASEAN-China leading RCEP, and the One Belt One Road Initiative launched by China seemed to declare a new era of globalization, without the US participation. o China founded a series of institutions — the New Development Bank, or BRICS Bank; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; the Silk Road Fund; and a reorganized China Development Bank that cumulatively will have more lending power than the Bretton Woods institutions which was led by the US.
Culture has become an important pillar within China’s strategy to secure influence internationally, as was laid out at the 2011 plenary session of the 17th Central Committee of the CCP.
Nowhere is this effort more important than within the region itself, where there are deep-seated suspicions about China’s economic and military rise. I would suggest that it is within this wider context that we need to situate the Belt and Road strategy of fostering people-to-people connections. One Belt, One Road has been described as “the most significant and far-reaching initiative that China has ever put forward.” However, for both China and many of the countries involved, in cultural and historical terms, much is at stake in this project. As Xi Jinping indicated in his speech, the Belt and Road will “promote inter-civilization exchanges to build bridges of friendship for our people, drive human development and safeguard the peace of the world.” Dozens of countries have already supported the initiative to varying degrees, even if their enthusiasm often varies depending on whether they are speaking publicly or privately. For most Asian countries, the interest in BRI is motivated less by some ideological shift towards China and more by a practical recognition of its relevance for advancing their own economic goals. But we also need to also look to the ways in which a historical narrative of silk, seafaring, and cultural and religious encounters opens up space for other countries to draw on their own deep histories in the crafting of contemporary trade and political relations.
Iran, Turkey, and the Arab States of the Persian Gulf are among those looking to the Belt and Road as an expedient platform for not only securing international recognition for their culture and civilizations but also using that sense of history to create political and economic loyalty in a region characterized by unequal and competing powers. The now conventional idea of soft power focuses on how states and countries secure influence through the export of their own social and cultural goods. But this idea only partially captures what is at stake in One Belt, One Road. Reviving the idea of the silk roads, on both land and sea, gives vitality to histories of transnational, even transcontinental, trade and people-people encounters as a shared heritage.
Crucially, it is a narrative that can be activated for diplomatic purposes.
While the One Belt, One Road initiative offers considerable potential in several economic, political, cultural, and strategic realms, it also presents many uncertainties and potential concerns. It has clearly become a major foreign and economic policy hallmark of the Xi Jinping government and is consistently supported as such by all manner of Chinese observers. While it is generally not depicted as a means of enhancing Beijing’s influence across Eurasia, there is little doubt that it will be measured in large part in those terms, and in its development impact on the region.
Due to the OBOR funding arrangements, China benefits from both the financing and construction of infrastructure projects, while the recipient countries must bear the financial risk. When trade volumes are high the arrangement will be mutually beneficial, and that may not matter, but when it is not, it could become a source of concern for the recipient country.
Ultimately, the success or failure of the One Belt, One Road concept will depend in no small measure on the resources that Beijing is willing and able to devote to it, the adroitness of China’s leaders and entrepreneurs in applying those resources to local conditions, and the benefits that it produces not only for China but perhaps more importantly for the recipient nations. On the other hand, To summarize, the OBOR is positive for developing countries, and it is an opportunity to improve their infrastructure.
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