Ever since Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward the idea of “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) in 2013, Chinese scholars have pursued the idea with unprecedented interest and energy. Numerous conferences have been organized to discuss various aspects of the various OBOR initiatives and there already have been some tangible results. However, overall the situation of OBOR research is not healthy as too many scholars who are poorly trained to study OBOR in detail have used the initiative to advance their other academic or non-academic interests. This situation must be changed, otherwise it will jeopardize China’s OBOR initiatives in the long run. Specifically, there are three main problems with the current frenzied discussion on OBOR.
First, there is simply a lack of academic expertise on most developing countries in China. Unlike the U.S., area studies as a discipline has never been seriously treated by the government and the result is that very few scholars in China are respectable experts in regions like South America and the Middle East. Many of China’s so-called experts on the Middle East simply don’t speak Arabic languages and cannot read Arabic texts. And many of China’s Africa experts have never traveled to Africa to do field research. How can you give sound advice to the Chinese government if the experts themselves are not knowledgeable about their respective regions? This is a huge problem in China.
But we cannot entirely blame everything on the experts, though they must bear some responsibility. The main reason is still institutional: the government has neglected area studies for a long time, sometimes with good reasons. When China was still weak and poor, what would have been the use of studying other poor developing countries? Valuable resources were instead focused on studying more advanced countries like the U.S., Japan, and the member states of the European Union. It was only about ten years ago that Chinese companies and individuals started to explore business opportunities in Africa and the Middle East. Educational institutions are not known for adjusting to realities quickly hence China’s lack of experts in these areas.
Second, for whatever reason, Chinese scholars tend to praise OBOR initiatives, without every seriously discussing the risks involved. The reality is simply that all sorts of risks, particularly political risks, are very serious problems in some countries like Myanmar and Pakistan. If the Chinese government does not pay serious attention to such factors, many of China’s big investment projects might fail. Already, we have examples of failed projects in Myanmar due to political reasons. As even powerful states like the United States know, smaller countries can hurt the interests of powerful and large companies through nationalization. Why should we expect politically unstable countries then to treat China differently? So far the Chinese government has realized the potential dangers, but no serious studies have been launched by Chinese scholars to address such issues. Again, this might be a result of a lack of expertise. Still, Chinese scholars and think tanks should pay attention to all kinds of social, political, and economic risks associated with China’s investment.
Third, Chinese scholars should downplay the strategic implications of China’s OBOR initiatives. Right now too many Chinese scholars like to enthusiastically discuss the potential strategic benefits, as if China is going to overtake the U.S. as the world’s new hegemon. This is not only flat out wrong, but also strategically unwise. The U.S. is already very suspicious of China’s long-term strategic intentions in the South China Sea and many European countries are also uneasy about China’s expanding influence into the EU. Why should Chinese scholars give hawks in the U.S., Japan, and Europe more ammunition to fuel their ‘China threat’ theories? This is simply shortsighted. Moreover, the OBOR initiatives are not guaranteed to succeed and in many ways they might actually fail if the Chinese government does not play its cards right. And there is some evidence that the government might not be handling its cards right at the moment.
All in all, the Chinese government should try to cool down the current unhealthy status of the OBOR debate in China before it is too late. And Chinese scholars should put in serious effort to understand the regions along the OBOR route before they give poorly considered advice to the government. Otherwise, we might soon witness the fall of the OBOR intiatives.