The Backlash to Belt and Road

A South Asian Battle Over Chinese Economic Power

The new standard gauge railway line is seen under construction near Voi town, Kenya, March 16, 2016. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

When Beijing announced its One Belt, One Road initiative five years ago, the global reaction was immediate and pronounced. OBOR, as it became known, was hailed as a transformative effort to deploy China’s economic might in service of its strategic goals. By going out of their way to reject analogies to the United States’ Marshall Plan in Europe, Chinese leaders in fact invited the comparison. Chinese ports, pipelines, roads, and railways would expand commercial, investment, and infrastructure linkages from Asia to Europe. They would build new markets, integrate poorly connected regions, and stabilize the Chinese periphery. Ultimately, they would lay the groundwork for a Sinocentric global order.

No region seemed to make a more promising target for such ambitions than South Asia. Sparsely populated Central Asia is a transit route and energy source rather than a serious market. East Asian trade and infrastructure connections are already well developed. EU public procurement rules preclude a privileged role for Chinese companies. Russia is in economic decline. 

South Asia, by contrast, appeared to have all the right ingredients for the Chinese economic model: large populations, fast-growing economies, GDP per capita comparable to China’s a decade earlier, weak connectivity, and major infrastructure deficiencies. When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang undertook his first overseas visit in 2013, South Asia was the location he picked to tout two new economic corridors, a version of OBOR avant la lettre

But five years on, such hopes have proved unfounded. The region has instead become the main battleground for OBOR’s future—with India as its chief opponent, Pakistan as its chief enthusiast, and, in between, countries from Nepal to the Maldives facing economic choices that have become highly politicized. While the hope may have been that Chinese investment schemes would help mitigate competition in the region, the result so far has been precisely the opposite: OBOR has fused with and reinforced existing divisions. If China wants the economics of the initiative to achieve its intended strategic effects, it will

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