OBOR: A vision as smooth as silk

OBOR: A vision as smooth as silk

Irtiza Nasim Ali,

Silk and spices, jade and jewels… the Silk Route conjures up exotic images of travel and trade, of the yesteryear. And now, as China presents the world with the One Belt One Road (OBOR) vision, these images no longer seem lost dreams of a vanished world.

At the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held on 14-15 May this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping did more than just inaugurate the forum. With his keynote speech, he opened the doors to an initiative that gives new connotations to international cooperation and globalization. In a world beset with warfare, animosity and cut-throat competition, Xi Jinping’s speech came as a welcome breath of fresh air.

Reflecting China’s characteristic cool and calm diplomacy, the Chinese president at the very outset made it clear that this was a participatory initiative and the One Road One Belt project would benefit people across the world.

The president’s speech was an eloquent expression of a vision that encompassed the past, present and the future. Going back 2000 years, he spoke of the “ancient silk routes” that “opened windows of friendly engagement among nations, adding a splendid chapter to the history of human progress.” The very term ‘friendly engagement’ is a far cry from the military engagements today’s world is prone to witness. It gives a message of hope to the war-weary world.

His description of the old silk routes draws a parallel to the vision of the OBOR initiative. He said, “Spanning thousands of miles and years, the ancient silk routes embody the spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit. The Silk Road spirit has become a great heritage of human civilization.”

He referred to the great travelers and adventurers of the past, including Du Huan of China, Marco Polo of Italy and Ibn Batutah of Morocco, who left their footprints along these ancient routes. “These pioneers won their place in history not as conquerors with warships, guns or swords. Rather, they are remembered as friendly emissaries leading camel caravans and sailing treasure-loaded ships. Generation after generation, the silk routes travelers have built a bridge for peace and East-West cooperation,” said Xi Jinping, delivering a very poignant message indeed.

Like the ancient silk routes, the One Road One Belt initiative is a symbol of openness and inclusiveness. The ancient routes spanned the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and Ganges and the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. They connected the Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Chinese civilizations as well as the lands of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam and homes of people of different nationalities and races. This was globalization when the term was unheard of at that juncture of history. This connectivity enabled people of various civilizations, religions and races to interact with each other. “They fostered a spirit of mutual respect and were engaged in a common endeavor to pursue prosperity. Today, ancient cities of Jiuquan, Dunhuang, Tulufan, Kashi, Samarkand, Baghdad and Constantinople as well as ancient ports of Ningbo, Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Beihai, Colombo, Jeddah and Alexandria stand as living monuments to these past interactions. This part of history shows that civilization thrives with openness and nations prosper through exchange,” said the Chinese president.

Mutual learning was another aspect of those ancient routes. Just as these routes were for trade, they also were a bridge for knowledge as well. Through these routes, Chinese silk, porcelain, lacquer-work and ironware were shipped to the West, while pepper, flax, spices, grapes and pomegranates were brought to China. Buddhism, Islam and Arab astronomy, calendars and medicines found their way to China, while China’s great inventions and silkworm breeding spread to other parts of the world. This active interaction gave way to innovation and ideas. It took religious harmony to new heights. Buddhism which originated in India, blossomed in China and was enriched in Southeast Asia. Confucianism, which was born in China, was appreciated by European thinkers. Knowledge and learning knew no bounds.

President Xi Jing appealed to the dignitaries attending the OBOR forum to remember that history was the best teacher. He said, “The glory of the ancient silk routes shows that geographical distance is not insurmountable. If we take the first courageous step towards each other, we can embark on a path leading to friendship, shared development, peace, harmony and a better future.”

Taking the the historical perspective into cognizance, he said humankind had reached an age of great progress, great transformation and profound changes. “In this increasingly multi-polar, economically globalized, digitized and culturally diversified world, the trend toward peace and development becomes stronger, and reform and innovation are gaining momentum. Never have we seen such close interdependence among countries as today, such fervent desire of people for a better life, and never have we had so many means to prevail over difficulties.”

He said, “In terms of reality, we find ourselves in a world fraught with challenges. Global growth requires new drivers, development needs to be more inclusive and balanced, and the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be narrowed. Hotspots in some regions are causing instability and terrorism is rampant. Deficit in peace, development and governance poses a daunting challenge to mankind. This is the issue that has always been on my mind.”

It was this concern that led him to propose, in the autumn of 2013 respectively in Kazakhstan and Indonesia, to build the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which he refers to as the Belt and Road Initiative.

There is a Chinese saying, ‘Peaches and plums do not speak, but they are so attractive that a path is formed below the trees.’ And the four years on from his proposal, over 100 countries and international organizations have supported and got involved in this initiative. Important resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly and Security Council contain reference to it. The vision of the Belt and Road Initiative is becoming a reality and bearing rich fruit.

While referring to history, the Chinese president is well aware that times have changed. Changed circumstances and new realities demand different strategies. He said, “The pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative is not meant to reinvent the wheel. Rather, it aims to complement the development strategies of countries involved by leveraging their comparative strengths. 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, One Economic Circle initiative of Viet Nam, the Northern Powerhouse initiative of the UK and the Amber Road initiative of Poland. We are also promoting complementarity between China’s development plan and those of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Hungary and other countries. China has signed cooperation agreements with over 40 countries and international organizations and carried out framework cooperation on production capacity with more than 30 countries.”

These are no utopian dreams. In pragmatic terms, over the past four years there has been enhanced infrastructure connectivity. Roads and railways create prosperity in all sectors. There is the building of the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, the China-Laos railway, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway and the Hungary-Serbia railway, and upgraded Gwadar and Piraeus ports in cooperation with relevant countries. A large number of connectivity projects are also in the pipeline. A multi-dimensional infrastructure network is taking shape, underpinned by economic corridors such as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor and the New Eurasian Continental Bridge, featuring land-sea-air transportation routes and information expressway and supported by major railway, port and pipeline projects.

OBOR is a conduit for financial connectivity too. Financing bottlenecks are key challenge to connectivity. To address these bottlenecks, China has taken up financial cooperation with countries and organizations involved in the Belt and Road Initiative. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has provided US$1.7 billion of loans for nine projects in the Belt and Road participating countries. The Silk Road Fund has made US$4 billion of investment. These new financial mechanisms and traditional multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank complement each other. A multi-tiered Belt and Road financial cooperation network has taken initial shape.

People-to-people connectivity has strengthened. President Xi Jinping in his speech said, “Friendship, which derives from close contact between the people, holds the key to sound state-to-state relations. Guided by the Silk Road spirit, we the Belt and Road Initiative participating countries have pulled our efforts to build the educational Silk Road and the health Silk Road, and carried out cooperation in science, education, culture, health and people-to-people exchange. Such cooperation has helped lay a solid popular and social foundation for pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative.”

His most significant statement perhaps is the one that delivers a message of peace. He said, “We should build the Belt and Road into a road for peace. The ancient silk routes thrived in times of peace, but lost vigor in times of war. The pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative requires a peaceful and stable environment. We should foster a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation; and we should forge partnerships of dialogue with no confrontation and of friendship rather than alliance. All countries should respect each other’s sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity, each other’s development paths and social systems, and each other’s core interests and major concerns.”

This is clearly a call to turn away from the prevalent propensity for war and conflict. As he pointed out, “Some regions along the ancient Silk Road used to be a land of milk and honey. Yet today, these places are often associated with conflict, turbulence, crisis and challenge. Such a state of affairs should not be allowed to continue. We should foster the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and create a security environment built and shared by all. We should work to resolve hotspot issues through political means, and promote mediation in the spirit of justice. We should intensify counter-terrorism efforts, address both its symptoms and root causes, and strive to eradicate poverty, backwardness and social injustice.” These are words of a global leader, a world statesman.

“Development holds the master key to solving all problems,” said Xi Jinping, “In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we should focus on the fundamental issue of development, release the growth potential of various countries and achieve economic integration and interconnected development and deliver benefits to all.”

He continued, “Industries are the foundation of economy. We should deepen industrial cooperation so that industrial development plans of different countries will complement and reinforce each other. Focus should be put on launching major projects. We should strengthen international cooperation on production capacity and equipment manufacturing, and seize new development opportunities presented by the new industrial revolution to foster new businesses and maintain dynamic growth.”

Speaking metaphorically, Xi Jinping said, “Finance is the lifeblood of modern economy. Only when the blood circulates smoothly can one grow. We should establish a stable and sustainable financial safeguard system that keeps risks under control, create new models of investment and financing, encourage greater cooperation between government and private capital and build a diversified financing system and a multi-tiered capital market. We should also develop inclusive finance and improve financial services networks.”

In another metaphor, he said that the initiative would be an opening up, “like the struggle of a chrysalis breaking free from its cocoon.”

With climate change being one of the major concerns of the world today, China has been castigated in the past for overlooking the issue. But in his speech, Xi Jing demonstrated that green development was very much on their mind. He called for “a way of life and work that is green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable.” He said efforts should be made to strengthen cooperation in ecological and environmental protection and build a sound ecosystem so as to realize the goals set by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

The speech presented the role of China as a precursor to this grand connectivity initiative. He maintained that China would enhance friendship and cooperation with all countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative, ready to share practices of development with other countries. He was careful to add, “We have no intention to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, export our own social system and model of development, or impose our own will on others.” A refreshing attitude, indeed!

China plans to enhance cooperation on innovation with other countries. It will launch the Belt and Road Science, Technology and Innovation Cooperation Action Plan, which consists of the Science and Technology People-to-People Exchange Initiative, the Joint Laboratory Initiative, the Science Park Cooperation Initiative and the Technology Transfer Initiative. In the coming five years, China will offer 2,500 short-term research visits to China for young foreign scientists, train 5,000 foreign scientists, engineers and managers, and set up 50 joint laboratories. It will set up a big data service platform on ecological and environmental protection. It will propose international coalition for green development on the Belt and Road, and will provide support to related countries in adapting to climate change.

Quoting an ancient Chinese saying, ‘A long journey can be covered only by taking one step at a time, the Chinese president also referred to an Arab proverb which says that ‘the Pyramid was built by piling one stone on another’ and the European saying that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’

President Xi Jinping deserves congratulations for elaborating the OBOR initiative in such a detailed and articulate manner. He is a leader with vision and is introducing a fresh spirit of comprehensive cooperation to the world. It is a win-win initiative. It is futuristic projection of a glorious past for the present world.