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Train arriving in Zhengzhou
Train arriving in Zhengzhou
Michel De Grandi

-Analysis-

PARIS — It's a plan of titanic proportions, with a budget of close to $1 trillion and transport projects, for both land and sea, on almost every continent. No single fund can finance it, and the development bank created for it brings together more than 60 countries. The "New Silk Road," and the figures involved, can make your head spin.

The plan, launched in 2013 by Beijing, wasn't an easy sell France. But since the arrival of a train from Wuhan to Lyon in February 2017, and the visit President Emmanuel Macron made last month to China, where the subject was officially discussed, interest has grown noticeably. More and more informational meetings are taking place, and participants are competing for the best arguments to encourage companies to take part in what they describe as an "astounding Marshall Plan."

But there are several dangers in this approach, the biggest being Western obliviousness, which is encouraged by an overly simplistic approach that's based on short-term thinking and only takes into account the possibility of new business opportunities.

Lofty goals

The New Silk Road was conceived as a scalable concept, meaning there was always room to adapt and expand its scope. And over the past few years, that's exactly what's taken place. From 60 countries initially involved, the number has now risen to about 100. The African continent, for instance, is now clearly integrated into the plan, as is the Arctic, which will have its own Silk Road, and South America, a continent where China is greatly increasing its presence.

It is, first and foremost, an extremely-well-built PR project.

The list of sectors involved has also grown. From transport infrastructures alone, the scope has been extended to cultural or tourism cooperation. The plan's name has changed too — from "New Silk Road" to "One Belt One Road" — and is now an initiative. At home as well as abroad, China has set up brainstorming sessions to give content to this general framework.

It's plain to see that behind its name and the economic projects associated with it, the plan focuses on a number of ambitious goals. It is, first and foremost, an extremely-well-built PR project.

To sing the plan's praises, the authorities in Beijing use a specific language that varies according to the socio-professional category of the people they're speaking to. They don't use the same arguments with researchers as they do with journalists, or business executives, or investors. Bring all of these communication strategies together and what you get is a global message that transforms these new silk roads from a simple starting concept into a pure self-evident fact.

Behind this plan, there is indeed an economic diplomacy dimension that is supposed to enable Beijing and Chinese companies to find growth opportunities abroad. But that's not all. It's also a project that exports China's soft-power and its will to rebuild global governance. Xi Jinping and China want to lead the reorganization of global institutions. The New Silk Road is the perfect label to bring together senior representatives and businessmen from around the world and thus turn China's end-game goal into reality.

Strings attached

You can call it forum diplomacy, an area in which China is very active. Not only does it take part in modernizing infrastructure around the world, it also spreads another, more ideological message. The Chinese President wants to "sell" his development model as an alternative to the policies pursued in struggling Western democracies. Xi Jinping praises a strong, centralized government that's able to make quick decisions and enforce them in a short period of time.

For China, this plan remains a power projection aimed at 2050, when the People's Republic turns 100. By then, China is expected to have recovered the glow it lost in the 19th century. The New Silk Road goes beyond land projects and includes maritime ones as well, from undersea cables to investments in harbors. In the Mediterranean alone, China has its eyes set on dozens of harbors. The ultimate phase of the plan is to have computing data move from one area to another through a fiber optic network.

Yes, this vast plan is going to open up opportunities in the short term. But we shouldn't look at it from too narrow a perspective. China's strategy goes beyond its public goal of spreading peace: It's just as much a strategy of conquest.

China, after all, knows how to protect its interests. Railway lines between China and Europe have much to teach us in this respect. The trains indeed reach Europe laden with all sorts of products from China, but they return to China with significantly less merchandise from Europe. This indirectly raises several questions, including that of market access, which is strongly unequal.

Finally, nothing at this point suggests that foreigners will be able to take part easily in the project China is developing. The economic corridor Beijing is building in Pakistan for some $50 billion looks a lot like development aid with strings attached. No Pakistani company is allowed to do anything in an area that's become a playground for Chinese companies alone.

This doesn't mean that the Chinese plan is entirely and definitely closed to foreigners. But we should refrain from just looking at the magnifying effect of the short-term and from imagining that these new silk roads will be covered with red carpet, that they're a direct and easy path into China and not the other way around.

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