Is China’s new Silk Road neo-colonialist?

Chinese President Xi Jinping believes the revival of the spirit of Silk Road will strengthen China’s commercial tentacles and its soft power. But not everyone agrees with him.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

The initiative covers more than half of the world’s population and a total infrastructure investment need of around 5 trillion dollars.

Last week, China delayed its 1.1 billion-dollar investment in a Sri Lankan port to build an industrial zone after hundreds of people protested against being evicted from their land.

The investment formed part of China’s modern-day Silk Road project, that President Xi Jinping calls the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative.

But some people are worried that the project might represent a new kind of colonialism.

Similar scenes occurred in Bangladesh early this month. One person was killed and a dozen others were injured in a protest against a Chinese-backed power plant in the capital of Dhaka. (AP Archive)

"We are against leasing the lands where people live and do their farming, while there are identified lands for an industrial zone. When you give away such a vast area of land, you can't stop the area becoming a Chinese colony," DV Chanaka, a local politician in Sri Lanka said.

Sri Lankan Buddhist monks in Ambalantota also protested against the project. The banner reads "peaceful protest against selling of Hambantota port and land grabbing. (AP Archive)

But authorities argue that the partnership arrangement with China is necessary to fix Sri Lanka’s economy.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe blamed the country’s debt on former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose government was friendly to Beijing.

He said the industrial zone was necessary to make the port and the nearby Chinese-financed airport, also running at a heavy loss, viable.

"The port can't be taken away," Wickremesinghe said, adding that his country's former British colonial rulers did not take away the Trincomalee harbor or the Colombo port.

The Chinese economy contributes more than 30 percent to the global economic growth. (AP Archive)

What is the OBOR?

Xi revealed the OBOR initiative in 2013, a year after he came in power.

It’s an intercontinental trade and infrastructure project that opens up new land and sea routes for Chinese goods. The project includes building roads, railways, ports and other links and conjures the spirit of the ancient Silk Road back.

Silk Road was an international commercial line where the globalisation started. But it became unusable due to wars. (Reuters Archive)

The revival of the Silk Road is a central feature of Xi’s grand foreign policy.

The Chinese leader believes it would strengthen China’s commercial tentacles and its soft power by binding the country with more than 60 countries around Europe, the Middle East and Africa.  

“The initiative aims to achieve complementary advantages, narrow down the development gap among regions, speed up the process of regional integration so as to realize joint development and common prosperity among Asian and European countries and related regions," Wang Yi, China's Foreign Minister said.

China plans to invest a 4 trillion dollars in OBOR countries. (Source: European Parliament)

What has been done so far?

Companies in China have mobilized to kick-off trading in OBOR countries. Besides, many big state owned enterprises have an OBOR department.

Wang Yi announced that the country will organize a summit forum on OBOR in Beijing in May. “We believe the forum will be a great success and make the initiative better serve the world," he said.

Last year, the first train carrying Chinese goods from Zhejiang arrived in Iran making the 9,500 kilometre journey through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Another train from Beijing has arrived in London using a modern-day Silk Road. (Reuters)

China is building an economic corridor throughout Pakistan, a collection of infrastructure projects that include extension of railways, new highways, a nuclear power facility and a coal mine.

New harbors, roads, railways and airports have been built in African countries. There are many others under construction.

Beijing has signed deals with 20 countries including Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia to implement institutional collaboration in increasing the production capacity.

The plan is still at an early stage. Construction is underway or facing difficulties, and there is no official date for when the project's completion.

TRTWorld and agencies