Belt and Road: the Geopolitics of Infrastructure
Five years ago, China announced a major new economic investment initiative called the One Belt One Road project, later renamed Belt and Road initiative. The project according to the Chinese government was to build infrastructure like roads and railways in South Asia, Africa, and Europe as part of linking the various regions together as part of a broader economic corridor. Despite the government’s insistence on the focus on economic and trade aspects of the project, the Belt and Road initiative has become a way for China to garner geopolitical influence through their economic strengths.
In Africa, China investments in the local infrastructure provides a base for increasing the Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean. Chinese investments in countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia led to the construction of ports, airports, and the new Ethiopia-Djibouti railway which was the precursor to China's first overseas military base which is in the Horn of Africa. The pre-existing infrastructure created and the investments in port by Chinese state firms allows the military base to draw upon a logistics network to support itself. Furthermore, China seeks to enhance its soft power and image in Africa as shown by its support of railways and other locally popular projects in Kenya.
In South Asia, A critical part of the Belt and Road Initiative in the region has been the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which has absorbed tens of billions of dollars of Chinese investment. A controversial aspect of the Corridor project has been working with Pakistan to build road upgrades and fiber-optic cables on Pakistani-Indian disputed territory. This controversy represents a decade long factor of Sino-Pakistani relations premised on a strategic competition with India, which these investments are a latest incarnation. The strategic rivalry China has with India is intertwined with Belt and Road Initiative investments in South Asia. Chinese investments in Nepal led to the end of Indian internet monopoly in the country. Chinese negotiations with Sri Lanka led to China taking a major interest in the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. All these projects coincide with many Indian military analysts fear that Chinese investments in the naval infrastructure of Pakistan is a precursor to China building a military base at the Pakistani port of Gwadar. A similar course of events to China’s actions in the Horn of Africa.
In Europe, A major aspect of the Belt and Road Initiative has been the maritime trade infrastructure. Chinese state firms have been buying up major shipping infrastructure and port facilities around the continent. Last month, Chinese firm Cosco Shipping Ports bought Belgium’s second largest port. This came after years of acquisitions in Spain, Italy, and Greece. These investments have translated to Chinese political influence on the continent. China’s investment in Greek ports has provided incentive to the Greek government to block European Union condemnation on Chinese behaviors in Human Rights and the South China Sea. Furthermore, European Leaders believe that these investments in critical European infrastructure will leave Europe dependent on China in the future.
Over the years, many analysts have expressed concerns about the economic feasibility of the Belt and Road initiative. This makes sense if the project was focused on economic considerations. However, when looking at the geopolitical landscape, does the Belt and Road show promise. China by utilizing its massive economic advantages are now buying political influence around the world.