President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China opened the Second Belt and Road Initiative Forum stressing cooperation, sustainability, and green technology.
This conference, held a few days ago on April 26, demonstrates the transformation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). BRI, whose former acronym is far better at getting at the political dynamic, One Belt One Road (OBOR) is attempting to rebrand itself as softer, and more collegial.
Gone from Chinese foreign policy is the bombastic, grinding rants of the Mao years, but with a goal that is much darker and more problematic for the United States.
From 2013 to 2018, many reports about China’s OBOR program surfaced and were primarily focused on the economic attempt to gain dominance. OBOR was divided along a land-based route titled the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and a sea-based route, the Maritime Silk Road (MSR); it was and is an overt attempt by China to enter the 21st century as a global power.
OBOR reflects Chinese contemporary strategic statements that desire a “harmonious world” system by taking advantage of a period of “strategic opportunity.” OBOR is propelled by nationalistic chauvinism, a climate of resource unpredictability, their “First Island Chain” ambitions, and the need to counter American primacy and a forward-looking strategy for space dominance.
In other words, the PRC is putting old wine into new bottles with several rebranding transformations.
OBOR now has 152 nations participating and counting. It was only a short while ago that people were shocked that OBOR had reached as far as the Greek port of Piraeus. OBOR is engaged in an overt targeting of the European Union, taking advantage of the chaos, and lackluster leadership that has been in the offing for decades.
This is best exemplified by the Italian government’s myopic decision on April 9 to officially join the OBOR network. The EU, whose member states often lecture the United States on issues such as free trade, human rights, and expression, now finds itself partnering with a totalitarian vision of humanity based on corruption and dictatorship. Although China has had success partnering with lower-tiered European economic powers, Italy was the first G-7 nation and is the linchpin to China’s Five Ports Initiative, three of which are Italian (Venice, Trieste, and Ravenna). Italy seems to have learned nothing from Asian nations who have experienced the predatory financial practices of China (Newsmax article Feb 20, 2019).
On the other hand, China is encountering pushback from several countries including the United States. One example, in particular, is the American International Development Finance Corporation which is dangling $60 billion for capital development so that U.S. companies can invest in developing nations. However, rather than slowing down OBOR, these challenges have intensified China’s desire to gain footholds abroad. China realizes that its economy is particularly vulnerable to trade patterns and trade disruptions and OBOR is a way to overcome and even control these winds of change.
China is becoming more sophisticated in its approach by trying to appear to be more culturally sensitive, renegotiating prices and costs, opening the door to other partnerships, such as countries like Japan and Germany. This is also clearly an attempt to drive a diplomatic wedge between the United States and our closest allies.
China is also diversifying its geographical stretch. Just as OBOR is headed into the heart of Western Europe, it is going south into Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, not only upsetting the geopolitical balance but the dominance of ANZUS in the region. This is at a time when Australia to a lesser degree and New Zealand to a large degree have questioned their role as the deputy sheriff of the South Pacific. In many ways, the chickens of the 1980s, when American dominance was sometimes shunned especially by New Zealand, have come home to roost. However, rather than serving Soviet interests, those decades-old mistakes will benefit Beijing. They also wish to pursue a joint “Arctic Silk Road” with the Russians.
The New OBOR Frontier
The greatest long-term threat from China’s OBOR plans is in the high frontier of space.
The first is in satellites which will create, according to China a “Belt and Road spatial information corridor,” controlling communication, navigation, and remote sensing. China plans to build, manage, launch, and finance satellite projects for other nations. This will create a dependency on nations partnering with China making technological vassals out of them. It is a masterful plan that one can be in awe of it were it not so sinister.
What many forecasters and analysts miss is that this is done only in part for economic dominance. The real engine of OBOR is political and diplomatic dominance. In the end, China’s imperialism is motivated by control and political supremacy more than it is about money. China’s prime motive is power, power, and authority over the geopolitical landscape. This is dwarfed by China’s overt intentions to dominate space-based resources, space-based solar power, space presence, and eventually colonize the Moon for military, intelligence, scientific, and economic supremacy. This has led to an interesting phenomenon; OBOR analysts are laser-focused on energy contracts, infrastructure projects, and trade routes.
Meanwhile, space power advocates are focused on China’s “dark space” activity. In fact, China’s terrestrial dominance attempts are merely the precursor to space dominance, which if successful, will ensure the very terrestrial dominance that OBOR was based on. In simpler terms, OBOR and space dominance are the same phenomena, not separate events or entities. The United States and its allies will either counter this with more than economic means or willingly enter into a submissive global role.