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China’s expanding Belt and Road policies: Challenges for Oceania

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2017

China's expanding Belt and Road - opportunities for Oceania?China's expanding Belt and Road - opportunities for Oceania?


Marc Lanteigne, Senior Lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies situates New Zealand and the South Pacific within China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.


When Xi Jinping assumed the presidency of China in 2013, he wasted little time in moving the country’s foreign policy into new directions.

Xi’s immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, tended to pursue a conservative agenda on the international stage, with a focus on building the Chinese economy and preparing it for the onset of globalisation, while also downplaying the country’s rise in power. President Xi has largely abandoned this stance, and shortly after taking office he began to speak about a ‘Chinese Dream’ of national rejuvenation, including a more confident foreign policy which better matched China as a great power.

Under Xi, China has strengthened its cross-regional diplomacy in numerous parts of the world, including Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and has also been the driving force behind new organisations such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) dedicated to addressing poverty and underdevelopment in the Asia-Pacific region, and the New Development Bank, which brings China together with other large emerging economies like India and Russia.

However, by far the most ambitious global endeavour undertaken by the Xi government has been the emerging trade networks being constructed under the aegis of the ‘Belt and Road’ (yidai yilu) initiative.

Introduced by Xi in 2013, the BRI is composed of two main segments, with the ‘Belt’ being a network of overland trading routes which would be built via new road, rail and other transportation infrastructure, connecting China with Eurasia, Europe and Russia, a nod to the old Silk Road trade corridors which connected Imperial China with Europe for centuries since the start of the Han Dynasty circa 200 bce.

The ‘Road’ would entail the development of maritime trade routes connecting China with vital international markets and involving the joint development of ports and other support facilities. For the past five years, China has been active in co-developing ports in many parts of the world which may act as hubs for increased Chinese maritime trade, including Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Piraeus in Greece, and Darwin in Australia.

With dozens of countries standing to benefit from these projects, the BRI has the potential to be one of the most ambitious development projects of its time.

However, the Belt and Road is still in its infancy, and there are many questions about whether the projects are feasible given the still uncertain state of the global economy, as well as the trajectory of China’s own economic reforms, and questions related to the strategic effects of the initiative. Beijing has stressed that the main purpose of the BRI is economic development, and has been critical of comparisons between the Belt and Road and the US-backed Marshall Plan in the late 1940s and assertions that the initiative also has a security dimension.


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Nonetheless, various types of strategy do play a role in China’s thinking on the Belt and Road. From an economic viewpoint, Beijing is anxious to reinvigorate the Chinese economy which has been buffeted by global recession for almost a decade, resulting in lowered demands for Chinese goods abroad.

As well, China has sought to address the problem of excess industrial capacity, including in steel production by channelling raw materials to BRI-related projects, as well as to galvanize China’s peripheral provinces, especially in the country’s Far West, and better integrate them economically into adjacent regions including Russia, Eurasia and South Asia.

Chinese policymakers are in a position to build the Belt and Road as an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, which were spearheaded by the Barack Obama administration but then abandoned in January of this year by the incoming Donald Trump government. Speaking at the annual World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland during the same month, President Xi criticised moves towards protectionism in the West, suggesting that “pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air.”

China is now in the unexpected position of being the largest supporter of liberalised trade, and the Belt and Road may develop as a key instrument of this policy.

The Belt and Road may also have a considerable strategic impact on many parts of the world is it continues to develop. For example, one of its major components has been the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which includes rail and other transport infrastructure worth an estimated US$46 billion, but this construction takes place in a region which has been politically unstable, raising the question of protection of China’s BRI overseas assets.

Last year, construction began on a Chinese maritime logistics facility, the first of its kind, in Djibouti, close to crucial Middle East and Northern African markets.

There is also the question of how the BRI fits in with China’s growing maritime security concerns, especially in the case of the South China Sea. With the US ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ policy in Asia discontinued by the Trump government and no coherent replacement yet announced by Washington, it is uncertain whether China’s BRI interests in the Asia-Pacific will lead to greater Sino-American cooperation or competition.

On paper, New Zealand was not initially seen as sitting astride either the Belt or the Road in their original formats. However, in recent months it has been confirmed that Oceania may form an emerging ‘Southern Tier’ of China’s maritime Silk Road ambitions.

During the March 2017 visit to Wellington by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English confirmed the country would be signing on as a partner in the Belt and Road project, with the possibility of enhanced trade and Chinese investment in New Zealand rail projects.

As well, it was announced in a paper released this month by China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) that three major maritime trade routes had the potential to act as ‘blue economic passages’ as part of the Belt and Road initiative. These are the Indian Ocean-Africa-Mediterranean routes, the Arctic Ocean, and the ‘China-Oceania-South Pacific’ route which extends from the South China Sea into the central Pacific Ocean.

In addition to building up the three routes, the report called for enhanced diplomatic and economic cooperation with littoral states.

These events have underscored that New Zealand will not be situated in the periphery of the Belt and Road as was originally assumed, but instead may find itself much closer to the centre of Beijing’s aspiring cross-regional endeavour.


Dr Marc Lanteigne is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University, Auckland, specialising in the foreign and domestic politics of China, and international relations and security in Oceania and the Polar regions.


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