European plans for a “Global Gateway” initiative to fund infrastructure around the world, and the commitment of the G7 countries to a similar programme, are Western responses to almost a decade of Chinese international investment via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). More than a tool to gain influence or boost trade, the BRI is a means to achieve social and economic security in China. This vast and ambitious project underlines three essential geopolitical points for the 21st century: access to energy is key, technology is a source of power, and points of interconnection are more important than ever.

After coming to power in 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping soon looked to respond to Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and take advantage of the West’s economic slump in the years following 2008. The Chinese president developed a threefold plan: strengthen ties between Beijing and its immediate neighbours to bring peace to the borders and push American influence out of Asia; provide outlets for Chinese overproduction; and secure the many strategic routes to and from China while rebalancing its development. The new Silk Roads were born.

The plan was officially announced in September 2013 in a speech delivered in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana, Kazakhstan). Invoking the spirit of the ancient caravans which once crossed central Asia, President Xi proposed a strategic partnership between China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, consisting of major investments in roads, railways, and energy infrastructure. A month later, President Xi proposed strengthening ties between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) through the development of the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative”.[1] It was not until March 2015 that the National Development and Reform Commission published materials on the initiative, emphasising its “win-win” approach, under the official title: One Belt, One Road. This name was quickly abandoned and replaced by Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to capture the fact that, far from being about one road, the project was about an entire network.

Breathing new life into China’s underdeveloped western provinces is a fundamental goal of the new Silk Roads.[2] Xinjiang, the cornerstone of the BRI, is set to become a major energy hub, serving as the gateway for hydrocarbons from central Asia. Situated 3000 kilometres west of Beijing, the region covers an area of 1.6 million square kilometres and is made up of vast desert basins bordered by high mountains. Historically, this region was not part of the Han Chinese sphere of influence and its inhabitants are Turkic-speaking Uyghurs. Uyghur aspirations for greater autonomy for Xinjiang have met with a brutal response from the Communist government. The harsh measures employed include forced sinicisation, involuntary sterilisation, and internment camps.

Xinjiang is set to become a major energy hub, serving as the gateway for hydrocarbons from central Asia

Mapping the silk roads

The vast BRI network stretches across Eurasia and has branches in Africa, the Americas, and even the Arctic. Because China regularly changes the participating routes according to its political agenda, they are difficult to list accurately. Some countries have also pulled out of the project. Australia, for example, left in April 2021 due to concerns about Chinese espionage and political corruption.[3]

Nevertheless, certain routes are critically important for Beijing. The Xi’an-Duisburg route follows the path of the ancient roads, passing from Xinjiang through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey to carry manufactured products destined for Europe, as well as raw materials and energy to China.

Central Asia is the heart of the project, for both energy security and geopolitical reasons and there are branches across the region, including into Russia, Pakistan, and south Asian countries sympathetic to China such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. At sea, the Venice-Shanghai corridor is key, linking Athens, Djibouti, Gwadar (Pakistan), and Hambantota (Sri Lanka) along the way.

All roads lead to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Sharing its borders with eight countries – Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, and Tajikistan – the region is the ideal gateway for Chinese influence in central Asia. Since the 1990s, China has built multiple border crossings and has integrated the Chinese and Kazakh rail networks. “Dual cities” such as Horgos (China) /Khorgos (Kazakhstan) that straddle the Chinese-Kazakh border are essential to this strategy.

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These new corridors aim to redefine the world order by creating a “string of pearls”, a series of home ports (both maritime and dry) that can receive Chinese goods and double as potential forward bases for business interests and the military.[4] So as not to alarm its partners, the construction of these infrastructure projects is delegated to arms-length, state-owned companies such as the China Communications Construction Company.

Between 2013 and 2015, around 60 countries were involved in the BRI. By 2020, there were nearly 130. China would like to bring as many countries as possible into the fold, but a few partners are central: Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Myanmar.

Pakistan has pride of place in the initiative. In 2015, 46 billion dollars were allocated to create an economic corridor between the port of Gwadar and Kashgar in Southern Xinjiang. The deep-water port of Gwadar is strategic in more ways than one. A Pakistani military base grants China a certain stability and could eventually allow the People’s Liberation Army to set up an outpost. Close to the Gulf of Oman, it is ideally located to bring hydrocarbons from the Middle East into China. A liquified natural gas terminal will allow both imports from Qatar and the liquefaction of Iranian gas; a refinery combined with an oil pipeline will send crude to Xinjiang.

Due to its vast hydrocarbon resources, Kazakhstan accounts for more than 70 per cent of Chinese investments in central Asia.[5] The Kazakh economy is primarily based on the export of gas and oil, of which it has 3 per cent of world resources, as well as uranium, of which it holds 12 per cent of world resources. Several oil and gas pipelines run through this immense country, which has one of the world’s lowest population densities.

Myanmar is an additional source of energy security for China. The opening of a corridor between the port of Sittwe in Myanmar and Kunming in China has diversified China’s energy routes. Beijing has also established a presence on Myanmar’s Coco Islands in the north-eastern Bay of Bengal. In 1992, it constructed an electronic intelligence-gathering station on Great Coco Island to monitor maritime traffic off the coast of India’s Andaman Islands around 20 kilometres away. There are also plans to build a military base on neighbouring Little Coco Island. Following recent turmoil, the situation in Myanmar is being closely monitored by China; a restored dictatorship would allow Beijing to regain control and brush aside US and Japanese influence.

The quest for energy

The strong economic growth that has characterised China for decades has rested on a sharp increase in energy demand, reinforced by artificially suppressed prices. Due to a lack of oil and gas resources despite the country’s vast size, coal is China’s primary source of electricity. While the country has abundant coal deposits, these are largely located far from urban centres, in Xinjiang, Shanxi, and Inner Mongolia. This factor, coupled with environmental and health considerations, low productivity, and supply shortfalls, has meant that Beijing has imported coal on a massive scale since 2009 (304 million tonnes in 2020).[6]

The Communist regime’s continued existence is based on a social pact that depends on strong growth. In its quest for survival, the party spares no expense in maintaining energy-intensive industries such as cement, steel, and glass. This explains the proliferation of excessive and often irrational infrastructure projects. Ensuring a constant energy supply for industry is therefore of utmost importance.

The communist regime’s continued existence is based on a social pact that depends on strong grwoth

While the pharaonic BRI is generally presented as a means to allay overproduction, its geostrategic energy dimension is vital, in particular because current energy routes depend on a few choke points. The tricky passage through the Strait of Malacca, for example, lies in an area plagued by piracy, while US ally Singapore is situated at the strait’s southern end. In the event of a conflict with the United States, a blockade of Malaysia and the Sunda Strait could paralyse China.

Energy imports into Xinjiang via central Asia are therefore key to the BRI. More than anything, Beijing wants to secure an oil pipeline that runs from Atasu in Kazakhstan to Alashankou in China. Already in place, the crucial pipeline linking Turkmenistan to Shanghai through Horgos allows China to receive 55 billion cubic metres of natural gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan every year. Via the BRI, this energy route spreads to the four corners of central Asia. The resulting energy corridor is 9000 kilometres long, running from the Caspian Sea to the Chinese coast.

Greening the silk roads

Renewables also have a place in the BRI, but in a different form than fossil resources. While China hopes to secure incoming energy supplies, it is also keen to send advanced, particularly green, technology the other way.

A scientific power for many centuries, China experienced a long period of stagnation in the modern era. This began to change in the 1970s, when technological development became a key reform objective. The requirement that foreign companies operating in China establish joint ventures with local partners massively strengthened China’s role as a source of innovation. President Hu Jintao (2003-13) was the first Chinese leader to pursue an explicit national innovation policy. Xi Jinping’s subsequent Made in China 2025 plan, issued in 2015, aims to put the country at the forefront of high-tech sectors globally, especially green and digital technologies.

Since signing the Paris Agreement in June 2017, and even more so after Donald Trump’s withdrawal, China has positioned itself as an environmental champion. On 22 September 2020, President Xi unilaterally pledged that China would reach carbon neutrality by 2060, followed one year later to the day by an announcement promising to end investment in coal plants abroad and to “step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy”.[7] In addition to increasing market share in a booming, high-value-added industry, this stance is designed to force the West to choose between human rights and cooperation on climate. China’s dominance in the rare earth metals industry, with 90 per cent of global production in 2016 and processing capacity equivalent to 75 per cent of global demand, is a powerful asset in this regard.[8]

In this context, the idea of encouraging a “green” BRI that would allow China to export its low-carbon technologies is gaining ground. China has already succeeded in creating leading international firms in the environmental sector, in the fields of wind power, batteries, and photovoltaics in particular. Now that the market is developed, the new Silk Roads are destined to become conduits for green energy technologies to flow from China to the rest of the world. More than a dozen projects are underway in Pakistan, including renewable power plants such as the HydroChina Dawood Wind Power Project east of Karachi.

Politics intrudes

Despite its strengths and the unwavering support of Beijing, the BRI project has many weaknesses that risk undermining the entire strategy. The first, and no doubt most dangerous, is China itself, or rather the version of the country it portrays on the international stage.

Since Xi Jinping came to power, China’s traditional restraint has gone in a completely different direction, known as “wolf warrior diplomacy”. In the hope of promotion, Chinese diplomats compete to demonstrate their nationalist fervour and no longer hesitate to attack critics of the People’s Republic. Although this strategy is designed to pander to the Chinese population, its consequences outside China can be very damaging. Polling conducted by the Pew Research Center in 14 countries in 2020 showed that 74 per cent of respondents have a negative view of the People’s Republic.[8]

The consequences of this diplomacy are also felt in China itself. In April 2020, Australia publicly requested an investigation into the origins of Covid- 19. China retaliated by stopping imports of Australian coal, causing power cuts in winter when production could not meet demand. As a result, China was forced to increase imports from Pakistan. However, Islamabad did not have the capacity to meet Chinese demand. So, in turn, Pakistan began to import more from Australia, only to sell it on to China. More broadly, growing distrust could undermine the BRI’s key objective of exporting green technologies to Europe.

Loss of sovereignty is also a concern for emerging economies. The Sri Lankan port of Hambantota on the Pakistan-China route cost about 350 million dollars to build, funded almost exclusively by the Export-Import Bank of China. But its disproportionate size and inability to compete with the thriving port of Colombo meant that profits were insufficient, forcing Sri Lanka to open debt restructuring negotiations with China. Beijing wiped the slate clean in exchange for a 99-year lease on the port, starting in July 2017. As early as 2018, the International Monetary Fund warned against Chinese loans, as their interest rates of up to 7 per cent are often unsustainable.[9]

Europeans are divided on the issue. Both Greece, with Piraeus, and Italy, with the ports of Genoa and Trieste, are dependent on Chinese investment and have joined the BRI. Northern Europe, and Germany in particular, is wary of criticising Beijing because of its economic dependence on exports to China. France, ordinarily cautious, was forced to break its silence after multiple provocations by the Chinese embassy in Paris around cultural and academic freedoms.

Any analysis must also reckon with China’s “sublime isolation”. The Middle Kingdom dreams of being a hyperpower but lacks allies. Relations with Russia are erratic. Both countries want to overthrow the post-war international order and share certain ideological similarities, but they are also rivals. China’s push into central Asia encroaches on a region traditionally beholden to Moscow. In 2015, Russia had just launched the Eurasian Economic Union, comprising Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, when Vladimir Putin announced that this union would join the new Silk Roads. Behind its adherence to the BRI, Russia is acting to maintain its influence, for example by proposing to China that Moscow guarantee the security of central Asia.

Few countries share a real ideological affinity with China. Vietnam partially cut its ties with its powerful neighbour after the 1979 China- Vietnam war and is not interested in the BRI or Chinese loans. North Korea is seen as an unpredictable but indispensable protectorate that secures China’s north-eastern border. While its coal mines feed Chinese industry, the extreme weaknesses of North Korean production and infrastructure make it a bottom-rank trade partner. While China accounts for 83 per cent of North Korean exports, that represents a turnover of only 2.8 billion dollars. North Korean GDP is estimated to be 1.5 per cent of that of its southern neighbour.

Other states close to China are driven by strictly economic, national, or personal interests. The recent shifts in the stances of the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, which broke off diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan) to recognise the People’s Republic, were motivated by Beijing’s largesse. While China may be getting stronger, its soft power remains weak. Despite all of President Xi’s efforts, the “Chinese dream” is having trouble scaling the Great Wall.

A further complicating factor is that the weight of the Communist Party and its bureaucratic “cliques” that fight for influence impedes decision-making. The hunt for political enemies, under the pretext of fighting corruption, leads to instability in key ministries. Above all, appointments are made based on loyalty to Xi rather than qualifications. Once more in this initiative, China is its own worst enemy.

Finally, the companies – officially private but in reality backed by the state – that invest along these energy routes are anxious to receive subsidies. They are eager to enter into projects to stay well regarded in Beijing, even if it means defying rules of good management. The new Silk Roads, and especially their energy component, require a great deal of capital. Building ports, oil pipelines, and refineries is expensive. The level of investment needed is estimated to be between a massive 4000 billion and an astronomical 26,000 billion dollars.

Beijing’s attempts at attracting foreign investors are mostly met with polite refusal as enormous infrastructure projects are not highly profitable and the countries targeted unstable, while China itself is cloaked in secrecy. A first slowdown in financing can already be seen: from 150 billion dollars in annual lending in 2014 to 2015, the figure dropped to below 100 billion dollars in 2017 and 2018.[10]

Japan, a traditional ally of the United States who maintains good relations with India but whose relationship with China is not uncomplicated, has expressed its opposition to the new Silk Roads. In 2015, Tokyo unveiled its Indo-Pacific strategy in partnership with the Asian Development Bank. Based on liberal values, the heart of this 100-billion-dollar “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” is energy. Tokyo hopes that Japanese companies, through public-private partnerships in Asian and African countries, will increase their electrical production capacity, mainly in geothermal energy. By 2019, the project’s funds had nearly doubled to 200 billion dollars.[11] Japan emphasises the high quality of its technological expertise and infrastructure to set itself apart from a still unappealing “Made in China”. In 2017, Japan’s former Prime Minister Abe and Indian Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the first high-speed rail line in India, with 80 per cent Japanese financing.

The new Silk Roads are critical to China’s strategy of independence and growth. Beijing hopes to diversify its energy supply sources while increasing its regional and global influence. Part of this is about breaking the post-war liberal order. While China has the means to bring this project to fruition, it faces many challenges. Costly financing, concerned partners, political blunders, and the implementation of rival projects all risk hampering the rebirth of the Silk Roads.

This is an abridged version of an article first published by GREEN (Géopolitique, Réseau, Énergie, Environnement, Nature).

[1] ASEAN brings together 10 countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

[2] Éric de La Maisonneuve (2018). “« Une ceinture, une route » ou le versant chinois de la mondialisation »”. Revue Défense Nationale, 810(2018/5), pp. 81-88.

[3] Emmanuel Véron & Emmanuel Lincot (2021). “L’Australie face à la Chine : la montée des tensions”, The Conversation. 18 March 2021.

[4] Kevin Merigot (2019). “ ‘Collier de perles’ et bases à usage logistique dual”. Geostrategia. 7 February 2019.

[5] Alain Cariou (2018). “Les corridors centrasiatiques des nouvelles routes de la soie : un nouveau destin continental pour la Chine”. L’Espace géographique 47(1), pp. 19-34.

[6] “China’s coal consumption seen rising in 2021, imports steady”. Reuters. 3 March 2021.

[7] Vincent Ni (2021). “‘Betting on a low-carbon future’: why China is ending foreign coal investment”. The Guardian. 22 September 2021.

[8] Laura Silver, Kat Delvin & Christine Huang (2020). “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries”. Pew Research Center. 6 October 2020.

[9] Speech by Christine Lagarde in Beijing in the framework of the forum “New Silk Roads”, April 2018. See also: Florine Maureau (2021). “Le piège de la dette chinois se referme sur les intérêts français”. Portail de l’Intelligence Économique. 25 March 2021.

[10] Data from RWR Advisory Group’s The Belt and Road Monitor website.

[11] Julie Babin (2019). “La Stratégie Indo-Pacifique libre et ouverte, un contre-projet japonais aux Nouvelles routes de la soie ?”. Groupe d’études et de recherche sur l’Asie contemporaine. September 2019.

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