When Xi Jinping first announced his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 the world was taken aback at the speed with which he started implementing it. It is an umbrella initiative spanning a multitude of projects designed to promote the flow of goods, investment, and people.
Since its inception the new connections fostered by the BRI started to reconfigure relationships, reroute economic activity, and shift power within and between states.
The grandest and most prestigious of the BRI projects announced with maximum fanfare was the one linking China’s manufacturing hub around Shenzen to ports in Western Europe by road and rail networks spanning 60,000 kilometres with an estimated cost going up to one trillion dollars.
By 2020 trains loaded with manufactured goods in containers had started moving to and fro, although the returning loads were significantly smaller. According to some estimates China would have spent upwards of six hundred billion dollars to date on the project.
From the start it was realised in Beijing that because of the trillions of dollars in reserves it held the lack of economic viability of the project would be more than made up by the geopolitical spaces it opened up – in Central Asian Republics by pushing back the Russian space and in Europe by tying up the operations of the Ports of Piraeus and Trieste.
It also commenced the 16 plus one initiative in Europe to the dismay of Brussels (now 17 plus 1). The initial success suddenly suffered a major setback with the onset of Covid-19 and the resentment that the BRI had started engendering. Several nations have started reducing trade after accusing China of having kept news of the virus from the world for several weeks; many are planning to sue China for the damage it has caused. Several high-tech firms have started pulling out from China and relocating elsewhere.
That is not all. On the Central Asia-Europe route, trains from China to Europe have become redundant. At least till the virus threat lasts. By then its viability and desirability would have become questionable.
The US economy is estimated to shrink by 40 per cent in the quarter ending June 2020. Western economies in Europe are likely to go into recession for several quarters. China will increasingly find it unviable to pour in hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain the tens of thousands of kilometres of rail and road tracks from Xinjiang to Europe when there would hardly be any worthwhile traffic on it.
Relatively unprotected and non-viable they would be likely to become targets of sabotage due to the resentment of Muslim nations en route on account of the incarceration of millions of Uighurs in concentration camps.
As a result, Moscow may soon find it possible to resume the Central Asian spaces from which it had been pushed back. Additionally, EU nations, independently of the US and UK, would be encouraged to reset relations with Moscow.
The latter would already have started having second thoughts about putting all eggs in the Chinese basket. At the same time Germany and France could increase trade and investment with Russia and bring it closer to the EU with safeguards agreed to by both sides.
With US and UK not part of the dialogue, sensible accommodation could pave the way for a European economic network from the Atlantic to the Urals in the years ahead.
China has gone on a propaganda counter-offensive around the world to misinform it of the steps China took to fight the Wuhan virus and cover the ineptitude of Xi Jinping’s handling of it.
Germany and France should take the initiative to question the significance of BRI linking Western Europe with Xinjiang. It is already economically unviable and semi-comatose after Covid 19. A push from the European side will drive China back all the way to its borders geo-politically and geo-economically.
Most importantly it would embolden several nations in Africa, Central Asia and elsewhere to throw off the yoke of crippling Chinese debt. If the action is taken collectively by several nations, China will have no option but to renew the repayment terms to more reasonable levels.
The writer comments on strategic affairs and is Executive Director, Eco Monitors Society.