One Belt, One Road is a massive project covering more than 68 countries and the project will cost an estimated $8 trillion dollars. It is based on the legacy of the Silk Road which connected Asia, Africa and Europe. The road was a mechanism of commerce in medieval times and China is now trying to reestablish it. My aim is to explain this project from the Chinese perspective and from the perspective of International Relations (IR).
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in September and October 2013, he came up with a proposal to revitalize the ancient Silk Road by forming the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Former is referred as ‘’One Belt’’, latter is referred as ‘’One Road’’. The project aims to link China with South-East and South Asia, Eurasia, Africa through trade, investments, transport and energy infrastructure projects. Surely, it is reasonable to assume that this project will keep to attract international society in the years to come. But in order to address the Chinese view, I think we should examine both OBOR and South China Sea dispute.
In current political conjuncture, China is seen as a power that is peacefully rising. It is sometimes called peaceful development or a harmonious world. China’s aim is to rise in the international community using soft power instead of hard power. Xi Jinping is the beacon of this policy. Since he became president, a significant amount of attention has been devoted to his leadership. His greatest mark is the proposal of One Belt, One Road project. Yet, there was a big problem regarding the concept of ‘’peaceful development’’. That is the South China Sea Dispute. It involves China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Vietnam and is about overlapping territorial disputes based on history and geography. In 2014, China’s Maritime Safety Administration declared that an oil rig will be set up in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which violates international law. The US even warned Beijing for militarizing the South China Sea one year earlier because China defended the deployment of anti-ship cruise missiles saying China has indisputable sovereignty over the area.
Could it be said that what Xin Jinping has done in the South China Sea and his proposal of One Belt, One Road contradict each other? One can argue that it is difficult to promote peaceful cooperation via OBOR while pursuing problematic acts in the South China Sea. Which one is significant? Finishing OBOR project by persuading other actors who, according to plan, will participate in it or claiming the South China Sea as your core nationalist interest and leaving a bad impression with the countries you are trying to cooperate? I think the significant one is the former. Here I am going to deploy the Realist theory of International Relations. Classical realism argues that irrespective of who they are, all leaders think and act in terms of their countries’ national interests. I want to apply this to concerned countries.
What, according to my assumption from reading the theory, we are going to see that Xin Jinping is going to deescalate the conflict because OBOR sits at the top in the hierarchy of national interests of China. Indeed, the South China Sea is important but the significance of OBOR overshadows it. But I also think that other countries, in order to benefit from OBOR will not try to deepen the conflict. In a way that, OBOR is a soft power instrument of China and China is utilizing it. Can this project enable China to become a hegemonic power in the international system? This question remains to be seen and assumptions remain to be proven but it was recently reported that in order to address the issue of South China Sea, ASEAN countries and China are planning to come together later this month. If the talks succeed, the South China Sea dispute will be solved and China can persuade other actors to cooperate in OBOR.
Firstly, China is going deescalate the conflict because OBOR will grant China an immense power in the international community both in terms of economics and politics. China is now facing declining economic growth every year and OBOR can be a project to solve it. Also, by commanding a vast network of trade, China can play an important international politics. Secondly, if it succeeds, Xin Jinping will leave a legacy on Chinese Foreign Policy. Thirdly, I argue, countries that are having a problem with China regarding the South China Sea will not deepen the conflict because they too want to share the benefits of this immense trade route.