One Belt, One Road

Daily News Editorial

More than 2,000 years ago, China’s imperial envoy Zhang Qian helped to establish the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that linked China to Central Asia and the Arab world. The name came from one of China’s most important exports—silk. And the road itself influenced the development of the entire region for thousands of years. Fifth Century Chinese traveller FaHsein gives a good account of this link in his travelogues, along with a detailed description of then Sri Lanka.

In 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping, proposed establishing a modern equivalent, creating a network of railways, roads, pipelines, and utility grids that would link China and Central Asia, West Asia, and parts of South Asia. China is hosting a global summit today on this biggest ever infrastructure project in the world – the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative that will eventually link 68 Asian, European and African countries (including Sri Lanka) and 4.5 billion people. Sri Lanka is being represented at the OBOR summit by a delegation led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Image result for OBOR cartoons

OBOR, more formally known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is a complex infrastructure plan that will link Europe to the Far East, based on the ancient Silk Road trade route. The project, for which US$ 1 trillion has already been earmarked, has two components – land and maritime. Sri Lanka is included in the maritime category.

According to the Chinese Government, OBOR is about the free flow of people, goods, trade, capital and ideas. This flow can only come about when the countries, the people and the economies are highly connected by roads, rail, aviation, trade, investment, banking and finance. The land segment (named the Silk Road Economic Belt) will run from London to Xian (or beyond) via Moscow, Istanbul, Tehran, Samarkand, Almaty, Urumqi and Lanzhou while the maritime route (21st Century maritime Silk Road) will stretch from Rotterdam to Fuzhou via Venice, Athens, Colombo/Hambantota, KL, Jakarta, Hanoi and Guangzhou. This is only a broad outline and one of several proposed routes. Nothing is written in stone, so cities could be added or deleted. Moreover, country-specific infrastructure projects such as the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Railway (slated for completion by 2026) could benefit from or even become part of OBOR. A number of projects are already underway, including a train line from China to Iran that may be expanded to Europe. There are also new rail links with Laos and Thailand and high-speed-rail projects in Indonesia.

Formally, OBOR emphasizes five key areas of cooperation: coordinating development policies, forging infrastructure and facilities networks, strengthening investment and trade relations, enhancing financial cooperation and deepening social and cultural exchanges. Incidentally, the aims of the Medium and Long-term Development Plan for Investment, Economic and Technological Cooperation that China and Sri Lanka will be signing during the Lankan Premier’s visit have similar objectives. The projects under this pact will include section one of the Central Expressway and the Ruwanpura Expressway, two vital infrastructure projects.

From a purely infrastructural and investment point of view, this project will revitalize much of Asia and also parts of Africa and Europe. While some countries will no doubt harbour doubts about China’s ambitions, there is no denying that the project will enhance connectivity and trade across Asia. This will be especially beneficial to developing countries that cannot finance massive infrastructure projects on their own.

Sri Lanka has not fully realised its potential as a strategically-positioned island between Dubai and Singapore, the two regional economic centres. Sri Lanka must promote itself as the gateway to India, with its one billion plus market. In this context, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has outlined the reasons for creating a North-South link, an investment corridor through Sri Lanka. “Sri Lanka’s situation in the nautical corridor between the East and West is of import not only from a geostrategic perspective, but also from maritime economic and security perspectives. On the one hand, the Indian Ocean is a vast source of maritime economic resources, on the other; it is a maritime trading corridor through which nearly two thirds of the world’s oil is transported,” he noted recently.

The Chinese-funded Colombo International Financial Centre (Port City), whose terms were amended to be more favourable to Sri Lanka after this Government came to power, will be a catalyst for economic growth and greater international trade. The Port project at Hambantota, against which factions of the Opposition carried out a misleading protest campaign, does have the potential to make Sri Lanka a bigger trade hub.

We do have an “island mentality” which sometimes makes us covet insularity and shun greater connectivity, without thinking of the ultimate benefits of greater integration with the Asian mainland. We have to change our attitudes to cope with the times and economic imperatives. Several countries that recently traversed in the direction of isolationism are now discovering that it is not so easy to live alone in a globalised world. We need to more enlightened and more open to greater regional connectivity as proposed by OBOR and similar projects.