The world’s economy has undergone a transformation and fast-forwarded towards prosperity in the last few decades but the distribution of wealth among nations and people within nations has not been one and the same. Belt and Road Initiative is striving to become an engine of growth that could take everyone along on the path to prosperity and good living. There has been little doubt about the economic benefits of such a network for the region and beyond writ large, and the initiative can also give impetus to drive social and sustainable development. BRI is well placed to harness the growth potential and share the development dividend with the underdeveloped and developing nations. This will also be instrumental in alleviating the deprived and marginalized masses of the participating nations by giving a boost to infrastructure and economic activities.
The project is endorsed by as many as 150 plus countries and also engages international institutions such as the World Bank, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, among others, which will influence the project’s quantitative and qualitative aspects. The engagement of these agencies is also ensuring that each project initiated under the initiative is considering the environmental impact. Since the scale of the initiative is so huge, it’s environmental and climate impact would also be of large scale.
The BRI is not only creating a trade bridge between China and participating economies but also it is propelling cultural and economic relations among other countries bilaterally. The countries can leverage on each other strengths and explore opportunities in the overseas market. This can have affirmative future implications in case of any tradeoff between two individual nations like that of the present trade war between the United States of America and China that is shaking the economic foundations of the countries worldwide. The success of the initiative like BRI can reduce the impact of such economic tremors.
The most visible part of the initiative so far has been the infrastructure. For example, the Standard Gauge Railway Project that is worth USD 3.2 Billion is the largest single infrastructure project in Kenya. It became possible because of funding under Belt and Road Initiative. The SGR connects the port city of Mombasa to the country’s capital Nairobi. Since Kenya’s economy is dependent on agriculture produce, the railway line will be instrumental in capitalizing on the exploring markets for the products in the region and avoid making losses because of the waste of perishable agriculture produce.
This has made Kenya an indispensable hub of the modern maritime Silk Road. The railway line will improve inter-country transportation in East Africa and promote the regional economic and trade development and also improving economic conditions of the countries in the region including Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia which are still among the poorest nations of the world. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, China has funded USD 300 million to build the second international airport in the country.
The result of these huge investments that are expected to be worth somewhere in between USD 1 and 8 Trillion Dollar will be adjudged after all the projects start functioning at full potential. The projects under the initiatives are both cross-boundary and transcontinental and will have long term impact on the relations between the countries in the regions and beyond because of ease of doing business between nations and improved people-to-people connect.
How the world is embracing BRI
The Western world had apprehensions at the beginning of One Belt One Road initiative, also known as Belt and Road, on its geopolitical repercussions or termed it ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy. Gradually, the Chinese establishment cleared the apprehension and the large numbers of countries have come on board or those have not joined the bandwagon because of geographical constraints or their political differences have begun thinking of building a similar program. After three years of the launch of BRI, in 2016, Japan vowed to spend USD 110 billion on infrastructure projects throughout Asia. Japan has, with India, also agreed to develop the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), a plan to develop and connect ports from Myanmar to East Africa. Russia, which is one of the most enthusiastic partners of the BRI initiative was uncertain in the beginning but later clubbed it with its Eurasian Vision.
The United States of America is looking at a similar objective with a different route though that route appears to be one way. Under the rule of President Trump, the USA brought the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act on October 5, 2018. The initiative was taken by the Trump administration after US President Donald Trump had rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership Initiative in 2017 that was the centrepiece of Barrack Obama’s Asia Pacific policy. This landmark legislation will reform and strengthen U.S. development finance capabilities into a new federal agency to help address development challenges and foreign policy priorities of the USA. The BUILD talks about introducing new and innovative financial products to better bring private capital to the developing world.
Apart from infrastructural development, the BRI is also fostering city to city cooperation at a large scale. The initiative is significant in achieving global goals on climate change and sustainable development in the countries world over as the role of cities will remain at the centre in the times to come.
The cities that face related challenges can build connections and share knowledge by enabling individual cities to cooperate and collaborate. In addition, as far as policy coordination is concerned, the establishment of a large-scale cooperative mechanism among cities along the Belt and Road can kick start the harmonization of development strategies and policies at the city level. This will require well-designed plans for inter-city cooperation, as well as policy support for the implementation of practical cooperation projects.
It is widely accepted that the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century became a key driver of urban development. In Europe, urbanization accelerated with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, going from 15% in 1800 to 40% in 1910. According to the report Demography, Urbanization and Development by Marron Institute of Urban Management, New York University, both Africa and Asia grew twice as fast, starting at similarly low levels of 15% in 1950 to reach around 40% in 2010.The role of infrastructural and industrial development build foundations for sustainable development.
According to a report published by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), on average, every job created in the manufacturing sector creates an additional 2.2 jobs in others sectors and promotes economic growth more generally by bolstering public sector development in urban administration, infrastructure, public health and education. If cities are able to properly leverage their comparative industrial advantages, it stands to reason that they can vastly increase their competitiveness. First, however, proper enabling policies and basic infrastructural amenities must be in place to support industrial and infrastructural development. Once in place, the establishment of strong production centres can raise average GDP per capita growth rates by up to 6.3%. By the same token, cities with highly productive industrial centres enjoy average increases in job growth of between 3.5% and 3.3% annually and see the highest yearly increase in incomes at 4.6%. Thus the role of city to city corporation becomes crucial and can play a significant role in achieving all the targets envisioned under the Belt and Road Project and other global agendas.
China has travelled a long distance by initiating BRI for shared prosperity, but the challenges abound. The country kept its international profile low for decades until it became an economic powerhouse. it should not underestimate the constraints amidst the trade war tensions, let alone ignore the fact how it got so far. As a Chinese proverb puts it, “On a journey of a hundred miles, 90 is but halfway.”