The two main Silk Road routes traversed much of Asia and the Middle East. Photo: Flikr.

The two main Silk Road routes traversed much of Asia and the Middle East. Photo: Flikr.

Silk Road blocks

First published in Advance, the Crawford School of Public Policy's magazine, in November 2015. By DR BEN HILLMAN, PhD '06

China's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is President Xi Jinping's signature strategy for realising China's emergence as a prosperous and stable world power.

It is also a significant counterweight to the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership, from which China is currently excluded.

OBOR was initially conceived as a plan for expanding trade and commerce along former traditional Silk Road routes by investing in regional transport and communications infrastructure.

New ports, airports, highways and railways would facilitate trade and economic growth from northern China to Europe via Eurasia and along a new maritime corridor linking southern China with East Africa via South East Asia.

OBOR projects were also intended to shore up lagging growth at home by absorbing China's excess industrial capacity and capital and by securing access to the region's energy and resources.

But, since 2013, OBOR has morphed into something much bigger than a regional infrastructure development plan.

Last March, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) released an action plan outlining the types of activities that will promote deeper engagement with OBOR countries.

OBOR now calls for deeper engagement between the economies and societies of China and 65 countries in Central, South and South East Asia through free-trade agreements, closer policy coordination, financial integration and cultural exchange.

There is also a commitment to strengthen and work through regional forums such as ASEAN and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

One of the problems China confronts, however, as it moves toward implementing OBOR's multiple projects is how to achieve "mutuality".

Debate about the contours of the initiative has largely taken place within China.

Countries along the routes have received only announcements about China's intentions.