The People’s Republic of China plans to spend up to $3 trillion (€2.67 trillion) what would be the largest international transportation project since the Panama Canal. The effort called One Road, One Belt would link up to 60 countries with road, rail, pipelines and sea lines and it is already being denounced as imperialism.
The scheme is an effort to revive the historic trade routes that connected the Chinese Empire with Europe, India, Africa and the Middle East. The centerpiece will be a road, rail and pipeline corridor between Xian, China, and Istanbul that will follow part of the route of the historic Silk Road. There will also be an improved rail link across Siberia, a new highway to Myanmar, and a sea route from Southeast China to Venice via the Suez Canal.
Not surprisingly none of this will come cheap; Chinese officials are already pledging between $36 billion (€32.07 billion) and $113 billion (€100.67 billion), depending on which news story you read. They are also running into some serious opposition.
China’s New Empire
Modi’s complaint is that the project is a threat to the sovereignty of nations, in other words colonialism. A look at some of the plans for the project reveals that Modi actually has a very good point.
The maps of the New Silk Road look a great deal like some of the imperialist schemes of the past. Quartz’s noted that a portion of the plan resembles Britain’s colonial trade routes. Part of the proposed seaways would follow British trade routes to India, which ran through the Suez Canal. That will certainly enrage and scare Indians who endured decades of struggle to overcome British Imperialism.
The highway across Myanmar seems to follow the route of the Burma Railway the Japanese invasion route from World War II. That was also the notorious Death Railway where tens of thousands of Indian, British and Australian prisoners; and untold numbers of innocent civilians, were killed through slave labor.
The Chinese have also spent $4 billion (€3.56 billion) to build a railway linking Djibouti and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, a historic colonial invasion route followed by both the British and Mussolini. Another railway follows the British rail line between Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya. Long term plans call for railroads to Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
To African history buffs that will sound a great deal like the British Cape to Cairo Railroad scheme of the early 1900s. Like Cape to Cairo, the idea behind the Chinese railways is to open up new markets for the mother country’s products. Chinese exports to Africa have risen to around $120 billion (€106.91 billion) a year.
Will there be Conflict between India and China?
Not to be outdone, India has its own plans for regional connectivity corridors, including an International North-South Transport Corridor.
There are also some disturbing historical precedents here. The growing antagonism between India and China is reminiscent of the hostility between Germany and Great Britain that preceded World War I. One of the causes of that war was Britain’s suspicion of German colonialism and attempts to develop trade corridors such as the Berlin to Bagdad railroad.
Another cause of World War I was a massive naval buildup; the so-called battleship race, intended to protect German and British colonies. Disturbingly such a naval buildup is already underway; with both India and China building large aircraft carriers, the modern equivalent of battleships.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy is planning to launch a carrier capable of carrying 36 jets and 16 helicopters. India’s INS Vikrant is supposed to join the fleet next year, the Vikrant is supposed to carry 30 jets and 10 helicopters.
An even more dangerous aspect of the situation is China’s relationship with Pakistan. Modi specifically condemned the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a part of One Road, One Belt in his inaugural speech.
More disturbing is the border conflict between India and Pakistan. Indian Newspapers accused Pakistani forces of killing and mutilating the bodies of two Indian soldiers on May 2, The Hindustan Times reported. Any conflict between India and Pakistan might draw in China and lead to a major war. To make the situation even worse India, China and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons.
A Danger for America
There is also a strange danger for the United States in the Chinese empire building – especially in Africa. The danger is that China probably lacks the military power to protect its empire.
A nightmare President Trump might face is a phone call from his friend People’s Republic President Xi Jinping asking for the US military to rescue or protect Chinese construction crews or infrastructure. This is quite likely in Africa where Chinese would make targets for mobs, terrorists, criminals and nationalist politicians.
If American military personnel died in such an action there would be popular reaction in the United States and possibly organized opposition. An even greater dilemma would be the sight of U.S. forces killing Africans to protect Chinese. This might lead to a conflict between the U.S. and African nations. It also would not sit well with African Americans, or the Christian community in the United States which has close ties to some African countries.
China’s One Road, One Belt Scheme is both ambitious and dangerous. Even if it fails this plan will disrupt international relations and change the world forever.