People I met when traveling abroad in Asia or Europe, most of them had some knowledge about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). My encounters included other travelers from South America and Africa as well. While I am in the United States meeting people daily, I find that the One Belt and One Road program (BRI was known as OBOR when China initially proposed it) is not widely known among American folks. Those who have heard of OBOR or BRI tend to have a negative impression chalking it as China’s ambitious program to expand China’s influence and trade to the world, from Asia to Europe and Africa reminiscing the ancient Chinese Silk Road. OBOR was first proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013 in a speech at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan where he outlined the idea and mentioned the old Chinese Silk Road.
The credit of proposing OBOR is given to President Xi simply because only he has the position and ability to initiate such a gigantic project. The principal concept of such a proposal not only existed during the Silk Road era but also surfaced a few times since People’s Republic of China was established in mid twenty century. China’s seaward freedom in the East and South China Seas had been targeted and blocked, first by the Western Powers from late 19th to early 20th century, then by Imperial Japan until the end of WW II (when she was defeated) and then by the U.S. and her anti-communist allies till today. Hindered from reaching out from the sea, the idea of following the Silk Road to go West was naturally an alternative. However, China was an extremely weak nation devastated by WW II while Russia emerged as a strong military power. Russia was not so keen to allow China to reach out through an Asia-Europe route without her tight control.
By the beginning of 21st century, China had risen economically through her people’s hard work for several decades and the Soviet Union had been collapsed over a decade struggling with her economy. The opportunity of launching a westward commerce route seemed ripe, but the wars and turmoil in the Middle East rendered such an idea risky; especially Russia was aggressively exercising her geopolitical power. It was only when Sino-Russia relation had been improved out of Russia’s economical needs requiring assistance from China then a Silk Road like idea had become feasible. The announcement of OBOR in 2013 was very significant but it did not immediately make itself very clear to the whole world because of a number of reasons. One was that China did not have her PR work completely prepared, perhaps, the idea was still evolving. Second was that China was facing pressure in the South China Sea worrying about the security of bulk of her world trade coming through Malacca Strait and South and East China Sea. Third was that China’s proposal faced immediate opposition by the U.S. and Japan, they viewed the proposal through a political lens calling it an expansionist program and throwing mud all over it. It turned out China had realized the equal importance of the land road and the sea route thus gradually formulated the comprehensive Belt and Road Initiative with a strong determination to implement it.
The BRI as a giant project naturally requires huge investment. So China first initiated the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to raise funds. It was opposed by the U.S. and Japan until 57 nations joined the bank. Now the bank is operating smoothly supporting a host of infrastructure construction and economic development projects. Now six years has passed since OBOR or BRI was proposed, but surprisingly the significance of this world-wide program and its accomplishments have not been understood by world citizens. There are still public reports denouncing this program through colored political lens, labeling it as an evil program causing developing countries to incur huge debt. Actually, there are solid statistics and factual data supporting its success in terms of real benefits such as improved infrastructure, elevated trade volume, healthy tax revenue, and cultural and educational exchanges for the participating countries, especially the 24 countries along the Belt and Road.
It is only fair to cast away the colored glasses to examine the achievements of BRI over the past six years. We shall concisely itemize below a few facts to do justice to this program: 1. China has orchestrated most of her government branches to declare a plan and action to support BRI. 2. The program as a part of ‘Chinese Dream’ is gradually perceived as a ‘World Dream’, exhibited by 124 countries signing cooperation agreement. 3. BRI has entered into the agenda of UN, G20, APEC and SCO commanding world leadership attention. 4. China connected Asia to Europe with 130M trains (freights) connecting 15 countries and 49 cities, invested in 34 countries and 42 ports including Greece’s Piraeus port making it the 8th busiest port in Europe and built railroads in Laos, Thailand, Hungary (Budapest to Belgrade, Serbia), Indonesia and Malaysia. 5. There are 50 nations and 70 international organizations having cooperative program. 6. The 24 route-through countries and 82 trade zones brought in $2B tax revenue and 300,000 jobs. China’s investment and trade with 24 countries are $60B and $5T respectively. 7. China has established industrial or economic zones with Belarus， Thailand， Indonesia， Egypt， Middle East Siharnouk port etc. 8. The Second BRI Summit in Beijing was attended by 37 head of states, 150 nations, 90 international organizations and 5000 foreigners. China announced an official BRI website, scholarship offerings, civilian participation, six-language information support for UN. 9. The provinces of China have connected with 60 nations and 1000 cities and civilian organizations have 160 cooperation projects with 69 nations and 310 organizations all under the BRI impetus. 10. There are 11 Chinese banks with 71 branches operating in route-through countries with 7 countries using RMB for trade currency. Seventy six cooperative documents for mutual culture and tourism cooperation created 85 M tourists. The above impressive achievements should lay to rest any criticism about BRI’s benefit to the world, BRI is truly a win-win development program.
The world citizens must look at the BRI program objectively without wearing colored glasses. The BRI is not just an economic development program based on infrastructure construction nor is it a program only benefitting China in trade. The above data and participating nations can testify that the BRI produces not only mutual benefits but also compounding benefits through cultural and educational exchanges. The countries without sea access now have. The regions with no transportations now have. The BRI created technology, jobs and economic opportunities. The world should understand this, not being confused by biased rhetoric. UK was first to take the initiative to join the AIIB. The EU powers were watching but might take action soon (Italy had just signed a memorandum with China on BRI). Japan seemed to warm up to the giant program by seeking better relationship with China. In fact, we can clearly see that the significance of One Belt and One Road is really beyond economy. The BRI has an implication in the political sense. it has brought a vision to the world that human race can have a harmonious world. Dr. Sun Yat Sen, Founding Father of Modern China, had advocated the notion of World Harmony (世界大同). What it means is that all nations with different political systems can work together with a common objective – collectively pursuing national and world benefit. The BRI is a program providing such a common objective. With cooperation, a set of rules of conduct can be developed to support the common objective - work together and win together. This is the ultimate vision of World Harmony.