Eyck Freymann begins his recent book by asking “What is One Belt One Road?” It’s a deceptively straightforward question, for the answer depends greatly on who’s doing the asking and why. Freyman poses the question on behalf of Americans and, in particular, American policy-makers.
One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World, he says, is “a wake-up call”, or at least meant to be, the premise being that the subject is “poorly understood” and that “in foreign policy, as in medicine, diagnosis must come before prescription.” Yet the patient here is not so much OBOR (Freymann’s referred acronym), as the United States and its policy-making decision process.
Since the US has been “unsure of what OBOR really was”, he writes, its policy response has been erratic: it has “ricocheted from condemnation to endorsement and back again”. He identifies three “misconceptions” in particular:
The first is that OBOR is a Chinese scheme designed to trick or coerce recipient countries into debt traps. The second is related: that China has complete control over the implementation of every OBOR project over the course of its life cycle, so the strategic rationale is the main puzzle to be explained. The third is that recipient countries are finally realizing the danger OBOR poses and have begun to pull back.
Each of these positions has indeed appeared with some frequency in OBOR commentary. But those who keep up with the subject—his target readership—are also likely (one hopes) aware that each has also already been (and continue to be) rebutted. Freymann’s own rebuttal is nonetheless firmly documented, well-argued and worth reading, particularly in his case studies of the three port projects of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota, Tanzania’s Bagamoyo and Greece’s Piraeus, selected because
All three were originally proposed by the local recipient government, initiated by a Chinese SOE with explicit political backing from Chinese government officials, and launched before Xi formally announced OBOR in September 2013. In all three, a transition of power occurred in the middle of the negotiation or construction. Thereafter, the new government tried to renegotiate and change the course of the project, creating a temporary diplomatic rupture. All three were rebranded midway through as part of the OBOR scheme. Yet the cases reached very different end-states. Sri Lanka’s port ultimately went ahead as planned and became an infamous commercial failure. Tanzania’s was put on hold and canceled in all but name. Greece’s became a towering commercial success—and China now touts it as a model OBOR project. The project outcomes could not have been more different—yet the OBOR brand helped Chinese interests prevail in all three countries.
This is followed by a more summary run-through of various regions, from Southeast Asia though Latin America, in which the same themes play out. After noting that some projects work and others don’t, that some go ahead and others stall, Freymann’s concludes that OBOR’s strategic significance is that it largely delivers as advertised:
most developing countries in Asia, Africa, and now Latin America have jumped at the chance to join OBOR and accept Chinese construction projects… China has mastered the art of helping foreign politicians address their most pressing short-term interests: to deliver economic growth, win popular support, and gain leverage over domestic rivals, neighboring countries, international institutions, and the United States.
Those of us in East Asia are likely to find this more or less tracking what appears in the daily helpings of OBOR news and commentary that we get with our morning coffee. Nor will it come as a surprise that much of what is labelled “OBOR” in fact predates the 2013 announcement—Freymann makes a big deal of this, but it was clear at the time. Neither will it seem particularly revelatory that the Chinese leadership uses OBOR in domestic politics and for political messaging.
Freymann posits OBOR’s global domination as a quasi-inevitability: “OBOR will probably continue to expand until the West either confronts it or acquiesces to it” and asserts that it “represents a working model for a future geopolitical bloc led by China, structured along the lines of a modern tributary system.” Unlike Freymann’s granular analysis in the case studies, these statements are posited rather than proven. This is a book review, not a foreign policy essay, but it’s worth noting that neither position is self-evident or universally accepted. Ryan Hass has recently written in Foreign Affairs in an article entitled “China Is Not Ten Feet Tall” that “alarmism undermines American strategy”, while Salvatore Babones has argued in Foreign Policy that any problem lies not in China gaining influence overseas but rather the opposite. Indeed, Babones has a book arguing that for example argued that insofar as any country is currently practicing tianxia, it is the United States. As far hard numbers are concerned, China’s actual overseas investment in infrastructure would seem to be in “sharp decline” (as one recent piece put it), data somewhat at odds with the thrust of this book.
Freymann’s (somewhat self-evident) message to American policy-makers is that “criticizing OBOR is not a strategy.” He wrote these words when the Trump Administration was still in place and policy was particularly incoherent; the government is now under new management.
Freymann continues that since it is a “vain hope that the United States can beat China at its own game, matching a port for a port and a road for a road,” the United States must “articulate an open and inclusive national brand: a packaged vision that the world will want to buy.” Indeed. But his specific recommendation as how to go about it—
The best option—for the United States, at least—is to make a show of joining OBOR and then work to shape it from within
—will likely raise some eyebrows. But at least it positions OBOR as potentially something other than an inherently zero-sum game.