China’s OBOR: opportunities and challenges

Is One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative the beckoning call for China to become a global hegemon? Will it be successful in reviving China’s economic and soft power ambition on the world stage? And finally, what are the challenges and problems with OBOR in its current state? Questions like these and many more were discussed at an evening talk titled, ‘Understanding and Securing the Belt and Road: The View from the Ground’, held on 23 January 2017 at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School), National University of Singapore.

Khong Yuen Foong, Li Ka Shing Professor of Political Science at the LKY School, and Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), discussed the historical and current economic trajectory that OBOR has undertaken, and will continue to tread in the future.

They highlighted the two major routes that China has planned under OBOR – one through land, passing across South Asia into Central Asia, and the other involving maritime routes reaching all the way to African coasts.

Professor Khong elaborated the main themes of China’s geopolitics and economics, highlighting the economic opportunity that OBOR presents among nearly 64 nations, as the way for China to become a hegemon in Asia and beyond. He stated three reasons why OBOR would drive China’s return to greatness.

  1. First, geopolitical dimension of OBOR, which places China in the economic-political orbit of many Asian and European powers, has provided China with a political hold over land and possibly the maritime routes.
  2. Second, OBOR acts as a link between economic and political partnerships in the region. Historically, nations tended to align themselves strategically towards their economic partners. However, in recent times, China has overtaken the United States to become the No.1 trading partner in the region. With this development, trading partners of China have to be more sensitive towards its political interests.
  3. Third, China’s soft power might lie in establishing OBOR through building infrastructure and harnessing connections in untapped markets in the partnering countries. OBOR is also based on China’s historical narrative of the golden age, which consisted of the ancient silk road and maritime routes.

However, Professor Khong did express doubts about OBOR’s success, with regard to the U.S.’s strategic worries, including India-Pakistan border issues in disputed territories of Kashmir where OBOR links pass through, Russia’s reservations about China’s expansion into Asia, and a possible resentment against this project from some Muslim countries in South Asia.

He also emphasised the relevance of OBOR in the light of the now-failed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPP would have been a channel of exercising the U.S.’s economic centrality in the Asian region, with countries like Singapore, New Zealand and Japan as part of the deal. However, in the U.S.’s absence, the regional-economic architecture will be moulded by Chinese initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), among others.

In addition, Pantucci highlighted the role of the Xinjiang region (north-western China) through the establishment of OBOR. Xinjiang has undergone ethnic tensions in the past and has had limited socio-economic development. China has therefore chartered trade corridors from Xinjiang to Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

However, despite planned economic channels, he pointed out that OBOR is facing some problems, potentially in the area of security.

  1. First, there are separatist groups and deeply divided ethnic communities operating in Central and South Asia, such as the Balochistan province of Pakistan where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is planned. The separatists consider CPEC, which is part of OBOR, as Pakistani territory. This makes Chinese establishments become proxy targets in that area.
  2. Second, terrorism is also an issue to be concerned. Places where domestic terrorist organisations link with international ones like Al-Qaida and the Islamic State, could harbour resentment against Chinese establishments.
  3. Third, local political disputes between countries in Central Asia can create problems for the successful implementation OBOR. Such issues include co-operation and connectivity between neighbouring countries, slowing down OBOR’s pace of development and trade in the region.
  4. Fourth, local benefits are limited in large infrastructural projects such as the ones in OBOR that require Chinese expertise, and this could deepen the existing inequalities in the region.

In conclusion, both speakers agreed that opportunities and challenges exist for China with its ambitious OBOR Initiative, and it remains to be seen how successful it will be for the partnering nations and the Asian region as a whole.

For more on this topic:

Read a research paper on this topic by Professor Khong Yuen Foong:

“Primacy or World Order? The United States’ Response to the rise of China—A Review Essay,” International Security, Winter 2013-14 

Extracts for preview:

Early in his book, Friedberg identifies five factors that supposedly work in favor of U.S.-China cooperation and two that work against it. The former are U.S.-China economic interdependence, China’s becoming a democracy, China’s enmeshment in international institutions, the presence of common challenges and threats, and the existence of nuclear weapons. The two factors that make rivalry and conflict likely are “the narrowing gap in national power and the continuing deep differences in their [China’s and the United States’] ideologies and domestic political structures”. In this five-to-two lineup, Friedberg judges the two favoring competition to be “stronger and more deeply rooted”. They trump the five that foster cooperation.

The rest of Asia is less worried about China. The strategic orientations of these other countries have been described as “hedging”—a policy of engaging both the United States and China in the hope of “not having to choose” between them. During the Cold War, they were content to align themselves explicitly with the United States, in part because of what China was (a communist state) and what it did (supporting local communist insurgencies). All things considered, then, it will prove extremely difficult today for the United States to corral a serious Asian coalition to check China’s power. That is why, for White, the United States, as the existing hegemon, has to share power. To be sure, for now and the foreseeable future, most countries in Asia would not want China to replace the United States as the hegemon—the ideal would be a situation where neither is the hegemon (i.e., White’s power-sharing solution), which White sees as the only guarantee of peace and stability. 

Related posts:

  • TPP and OBOR: Complement or Conflict?

  • The reality of U.S.-China competition


This is an event coverage article by MPP student Mariyam Raza Haider. It has been edited by Shinae Baek.

Click here to download white paper.