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Xi’s One Belt One Road: A Plan Too Big to Fail?

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Xi’s One Belt One Road: A Plan Too Big to Fail?

Xi’s legacy will be judged by the success or failure of his signature policy initiative.

Xi’s One Belt One Road: A Plan Too Big to Fail?

A worker disassembles a photo display for the Belt and Road Forum at the China National Convention Center (CNCC) in Beijing (May 15, 2017).

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

At the closing session of its 19th National Congress on October 24, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) unanimously adopted a resolution on amendments to the Party Constitution, with the inclusion of Xi Jinping Thought into the revised Constitution. Known in its entirety as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” the ideology was formally introduced by Xi in his opening address at the 19th Congress. Many analysts argue that this inclusion formally elevates Xi’s status a notch above his two immediate predecessors, placing him on par with New China’s two most influential leaders — Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Xi Jinping Thought Included in the Constitution…So What?

But just how significant is the mention of Xi’s name in the Constitution? The answer is ambiguous. Since taking over the reins as general secretary in 2012, Xi has gradually but surely tightened his grip on both the Party and the military. After just a term in the top position, Xi has proven himself as a strong, charismatic leader, which the country has not seen in a while, with the adoption of a more collective leadership approach after Deng.

Many reports of the inclusion of Xi’s ideology in the Constitution, however, are misleading. Although Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao’s names are not mentioned in the Constitution’s “guides to action,” their fundamental ideas are. In fact, all five of communist China’s top leaders from Mao to Xi each have a paragraph dedicated to illustrating their individual thoughts and theories. The Theory of Three Represents is visibly associated with Jiang. Likewise, Hu is clearly credited for the Scientific Outlook on Development.

According to the opening address, Xi Jinping Thought is made up of 14 basic policies. Many of the 14 points mentioned are not new, representing a continuation of past policies advanced by Xi’s predecessors. And just like previous leaders’ thought and theories, many of the points mentioned are general motherhood statements and policy guidelines. It is unclear how these can be used objectively as a benchmark to judge Xi’s political legacy.

What About the Belt and Road Initiative?

Although the inclusion of Xi’s name in the Party’s action guidelines is of symbolic significance, indicating his heightened status and an attempt at entrenching his historical statues, ultimately his political legacy would have to be judged by the success or failure of concrete policy initiatives. The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative immediately comes to mind.

Embedded within the 28 page-long text, the call to “pursue the Belt and Road Initiative” in the revised Party Constitution could be easily missed. Its significance, however, should not be overlooked. It is extremely rare for any specific policy initiatives to be included in the CCP Constitution. The only other initiative currently written into the Constitution is Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening. Enshrinement of OBOR in the Constitution, while the initiative is still in its embryonic stage, reflects Beijing’s determination to realize its vision and ensure its success. However, this also implies that the political cost associated with possible failure has increased tremendously, for both the CCP and Xi Jinping’s personal legacy.

Earlier this year in May, Beijing hosted the inaugural Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. The forum was hailed as a great success by the Chinese media, citing the attendance of more than 100 countries, including many heads of state. According to China, OBOR would bring about improved connectivity and expand economic growth for all involved through win-win cooperation. The Vision and Action document stressed that the initiative “accommodates the interests and concerns of all parties involved, and seeks a conjunction of interests and the ‘biggest common denominator’ for cooperation so as to give full play to the wisdom and creativity, strengths and potentials of all parties.” The Joint Communique of the Leaders Roundtable of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation further emphasized the importance of “uphold[ing] the spirit of peace, cooperation, openness, transparency, inclusiveness, equality, mutual learning, mutual benefit, and mutual respect by strengthening cooperation on the basis of extensive consultation and the rule of law, joint efforts, shared benefits and equal opportunities for all.”

Recent Setbacks and Obstacles

Despite the enthusiasm of world leaders in May, and optimism expressed by the Chinese media, there also appears to be a stream of never-ending reports of problems and obstacles associated with individual projects. Just last month, two major projects under the OBOR framework were scrapped. The incoming government in Kathmandu canceled a deal with the Chinese state company China Gezhouba Group to build the Budhi Gandaki Hydro Electric Project. Shortly after, Islamabad announced the removal of the Diamer-Bhasha dam project from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The inadequate consideration of the host country’s interest appeared to be the critical factor in annulling cooperation with Beijing in both cases. The setback in Pakistan is especially telling of the problems faced given its long-standing status as China’s ally and arguably the most avid supporter of OBOR. If even Pakistan feels uncomfortable about the terms of cooperation with China, what about other countries?

Recent developments have reinforced long-standing suspicion of China’s commitment toward mutually beneficial cooperation. Although Chinese investment in infrastructure development projects are often welcomed in principle by its neighbors, the exact financial agreements are often subjected to fierce debate. In the case of the Diamer-Bhasha dam project, Pakistan felt that the conditions for funding were against its interest. In other words, China had more to gain from the project than Pakistan. Similar concerns have also been voiced elsewhere. In Laos, many question the necessity for a high-speed railway, which comes with the cost of a huge loan from China. Other issues, such as the large influx of Chinese workers and the lack of opportunities and technological transfer to the locals, also call into question Beijing’s claim of win-win cooperation.

Too Big to Fail?

Since the initiative was first announced by Xi in his visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013, it has generated an OBOR fervor among both the Chinese policy and business communities. Many state agencies and local governments, as well as Chinese companies, were eager to jump onto the OBOR bandwagon, with many projects and initiatives being tagged to the OBOR framework. With the inclusion of OBOR in the Constitution, it seems all the more likely that there will be an all-out effort from all sectors to be part of the initiative.

Analysts, however, have voiced apprehension over the political embellishment surrounding the initiative. As with large financial institutions, which are often viewed as being too big to fail, there is concern that an all-out effort to ensure success of the initiative would lead to unwise economic decisions, such as the extension of credit to the many countries along the OBOR with questionable credit ratings. Thus far at least, there appear no signs of this phenomena happening. Chinese investments in OBOR projects so far seem be carefully calculated based on China’s interests — both economic and political.

OBOR in itself is neither as new nor as concrete an initiative as it appears to be.  Many of the projects currently under the framework are in fact old projects, which had been going on for years before OBOR was even initiated. Rather than a single initiative, OBOR is better viewed as a consortium of cooperation projects between China and other countries that were once separate ventures. With OBOR, more resources are available for old projects as well as the development of new projects. Individual projects, however, remain more or less separate from each other, and the delay or failure of any single project would not lead to the demise of OBOR.

The very scale of the initiative allows Xi and his administration great flexibility in defining its success. In fact, the flagship initiative is so broad in terms of its aims and objective that it can be considered more as a general policy direction rather than concrete project. OBOR’s success, then, will not be dependent on the success or failure of specific projects.

As a flagship foreign policy initiative to increase China’s clout and presence in the world, the success of OBOR arguably depends on other countries’ reception to the initiative as a whole rather than success or failure of individual projects within the framework.

The task ahead for Beijing would be to work with regional partners to alleviate suspicion toward its intentions. This can only be achieved if Beijing portrays itself as a cooperative and constructive big power in all aspects of its foreign policy, including on thorny issues such as the South China Sea.

Lee YingHui is Senior Analyst with the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.