So long as it links
Intro: Despite ongoing trade frictions, major trading nations in Europe, Middle East, and Asia are taking bold steps to increase trade links through infrastructure construction. Interconnectivity is the key to developing global trade, regardless of who initiates it.
At a time of rising anti-globalization sentiment and growing trade frictions, global efforts to develop intercontinental trade links are still gathering momentum. As China continues its global engagement through the Belt and Road Initiative, major trading powers in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have taken bold steps in infrastructure investment.
Picture of Belt and Road Routes. [File photo: VCG]
Saudi Arabia has agreed to invest 10 billion U.S. dollars in Pakistan, particularly for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Riyadh is set to become the third major partner in this initiative, which is leading the development of major infrastructure projects inside Pakistan and shortening a trade route that links Asia and the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates and Iran have also shown an interest in taking part, as they both expect future profits to result from long-term investments in Asia.
Another major event in late September was the first meeting between Japan and China for a joint public-private committee on economic cooperation involving dozens of agreements on infrastructure projects. Business people from the two sides discussed opportunities for third-country cooperation, including a proposal from Japan to jointly build high-speed railways in Thailand. As the relationship between the two countries continues to improve, consultations such as these will help pave the way for the upcoming visit to China by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in October. Third-country cooperation has the potential to turn rivals competing for projects into partners working in collaboration. Although the Japanese side avoids using the term “Belt and Road”, all signs point to them embracing the underlying idea and working together with China on infrastructure projects that improve connectivity. Japan is also expected to push for coordinated funding for these projects from both the Japan-led Asian Development Bank and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
In Europe, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has told the press that she has held talks with Asian partners over the past few months, including China, on joint infrastructure investment. And on September 19th, the European Union Commission issued a policy document entitled “Connecting Europe and Asia – Building Blocks for an EU Strategy” ahead of the meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers before they submit it to the 12th Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels in mid-October.
The strategy aims to improve transport, energy, and digital infrastructure links with Asia. The European Union envisions trade ties growing between the two continents, as “Asia requires an estimated €1.3 trillion per year for infrastructure investment in the coming decades, while the Trans-European network for transport is estimated to require €1.5 trillion in the period 2021-2030, providing significant opportunities for EU companies.” As with Japan’s approach, the strategy isn’t framed as a response to the Belt and Road Initiative, but it has been widely interpreted that way by the media.
The European Union says bilateral engagement with China is a priority, and highlights the cooperation between the European Union and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang has said, “We hope that the European Union can play a constructive role in advancing Eurasian connectivity, and send out the positive signal to promote economic cooperation between the Eurasian countries, and build an open world economy.” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will join Asian and European leaders in the ASEM summit next week to discuss the EU initiatve and its idea for Euroasian cooperation.
The world is witnessing trade frictions involving all of the major powers that pose a serious challenge to global trade mechanisms. No one knows when or how the current disputes may end. But the policies and programs discussed above show there are resilient efforts to boost trade over the long term through mutually beneficial partnerships. Some nations may still harbor suspicions about so-called hidden agendas behind the Belt and Road Initiative, but ultimately they see that improving connectivity will provide a shot in the arm for global trade.
After all, the Belt and Road is an inclusive platform open to anyone who shares in its vision for a more connected world. As China’s President Xi Jinping pointed out at a Belt and Road forum last year, “We have enhanced coordination with the policy initiatives of relevant countries, such as the Eurasian Economic Union of Russia, the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, the Bright Road initiative of Kazakhstan, the Middle Corridor initiative of Turkey, the Development Road initiative of Mongolia, the Two Corridors and One Economic Circle initiative of Vietnam, the Northern Powerhouse initiative of the United Kingdom, and the Amber Road initiative of Poland.”
As efforts toward greater cooperation extend around the globe, what’s important is not the title given to these efforts, or who gets the credit for kick-starting one project or another. What really matters is the benefits the participants enjoy as a result. In this regard, third-country cooperation is especially important: it helps to avoid irrational rivalry, and also helps ease undue suspicion about the reasoning behind investment in countries seen as the “backyard” of regional powers. Because just as a border wall demonstrates a lack of faith in a neighouring country, a cross-border road, or bridge, or pipeline is an expression of trust and openness, and a willingness to work together in the face of shared needs against common threats.
As the popular Chinese saying goes, if you want to get rich, build a road first. Over the last 40 years, China’s government has been building roads, and bridges, and railways across the country. This is because it understands that connectivity has been one of the keys to lifting 700 million of its people out of poverty. And it understands that this approach – improving infrastructure to bring communities together – will be one of the keys to continuing global prosperity.
About the author: Mr. Lin Shaowen is a senior political analyst working for China Radio International (CRI). He has been involved in global broadcasting on political and diplomatic affairs for 32 years as a national and international award-winning radio host, talk show commentator and internet columnist. In addition, he has given interviews on international relations to the BBC, NPR, ABC of Australia and Russia’s RT television.