Harnessing international cooperation for the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative

14 Sep 2015

By Xu Haoliang

In a document published in March 2015, the Chinese government outlined five key areas of cooperation and implementation plans on building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Known simply as One Belt, One Road (OBOR), this initiative is aimed at bolstering economic growth and regional cooperation between all participating countries.

The international community is abuzz with talk about the initiative’s strategic implications and its positive impact on the countries involved. Meanwhile, discussion has also addressed potential risks and obstacles that are likely to arise over the course of implementing this project. These include geopolitics, economic and cultural differences, as well as suspicions over China’s intentions. Therefore, a series of practical issues need to be taken into account. These issues relate to making sound investments, effectively promoting sustainable development for countries involved, bringing real benefits to local populations, managing risks and generating returns on investments, as well as improving regional stability and mutual trust.

A good relationship with countries involved is essential to the construction of OBOR. Although many countries have signed memorandums of cooperation with China with regard to the initiative, opportunities and challenges co-exist in terms of the specific ways of cooperation, participating groups, and so on.

This article offers a three-fold policy recommendation on how to resolve these issues in building OBOR.

Alignment with UN agenda

First, the OBOR initiative should be positioned as China’s provision of global public goods and services. It is also closely aligned with the UN’s post-2015 development agenda.

The UN will host a post-2015 sustainable development summit in September in New York. During the summit, representatives of member states will adopt the sustainable development goals for the period of 2016-2030. The 17 goals detailed in the 2030 sustainable development agenda will focus on areas ranging from environmental protection to economic development and social progress.

The goals of OBOR and those of the UN sustainable development agenda are consistent, as they both seek to build solid infrastructure, promote inclusive growth, foster sustainable industrialization, spur innovation and increase spending on rural infrastructure.

Alignment with the UN development goals will enable OBOR programs to be integrated into the national and regional development agendas of countries involved.

For instance, the Chinese government could consider a proactive partnership with UNDP by jointly organizing international forums on sustainable development and OBOR, as well as inviting government officials, business leaders, academic researchers and representatives of NGOs to come together. These occasions create a platform conducive to exploration and discussion of relevant topics.

Under the coordination of local authorities, and through in-depth understanding of the priorities and implementation modalities of host countries’ sustainable development goals, and their social, economic, environment and cultural backgrounds, Chinese institutions and companies that participate in OBOR can stand a better chance of effectively cooperating with local institutions, supplying them with technologies and funds and creating a win-win outcome.

Linking OBOR and the UN’s post-2015 development agenda will ensure that relevant programs contribute to the medium- and long-term development of these countries.

Integration with foreign aid

Secondly, transform the transport and economic corridors into corridors that enable inclusive and sustainable human development as soon as possible, through investing in programs that improve people’s lives and promoting equitable growth in impoverished areas.

Past experience indicates that communities in the vicinity of newly built or expanded transport corridors often cannot benefit from large-scale infrastructural investments, thereby marginalizing segments of populations and exacerbating inequality.

For example, many major nodal cities are linked by highways, and their development is fast-tracked as a result. In the absence of village-level connecting roads and county-level feeder roads, however, rural areas along these highways usually miss out on the benefits of main arteries and regional industrial activities.

Since the Chinese government strongly advocates common prosperity and inclusive development, conscious efforts should be made to invest in developing villages and townships.

Help should be rendered to village and township governments to mobilize local capacities and channel energies into the construction or upgrading of rural facilities. Spending must also go to farmers and micro-businesses, so as to enhance their productivity and assimilate them into the regional and national value chain.

These rural development projects will lay the foundation for future development of the poverty-stricken regions, increase opportunities for sustainable employment and improve the lives of the poor.

They are also projects that can help win hearts and minds. For example, UNDP has supported pilot projects in South Asia to improve environment protection and energy efficiency in medium- and small-scale brick kilns.

If the Chinese government could invest in scaling up this type of projects, they would not only significantly reduce carbon emissions, but also provide millions of job opportunities to workers in six South Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Beyond the framework of OBOR, China provides a large amount of grant assistance and concessional loans to developing nations based on the principle of South-South Cooperation.

If investments under the OBOR initiative can be effectively linked with China’s traditional foreign aid, they will have the added benefit of stimulating local growth and reducing poverty, apart from developing large-scale projects.

Leveraging UNDP

Thirdly, build the leadership and administrative capacities that the OBOR initiative advocates, innovate global governance models, and broaden China’s influence on global issues.

Covering a wide range of issues and topics, the OBOR initiative requires China and other participants to have high levels of leadership and coordination capacity in order to respond to complicated challenges. As such, it is of great importance to build capacities in key institutions, nurture leaders with creative minds at all levels, and conduct in-depth exchanges on today’s defining topics (e.g. climate change, prevention and control of epidemics and so on). UNDP and the Chinese government can work together. Drawing on its capacity-building resources, the agency can help train leaders from China and other countries on important international issues and help increase understanding and mutual trust among them.

The construction of a mutually beneficial and sustainable OBOR requires governments, corporations, academia, citizens and international development agencies to work together. China can create favorable conditions for carrying out the initiative by leveraging UNDP as a platform for multilateral cooperation. UNDP, in turn, can provide China with comprehensive analyses about how stakeholder countries plan to achieve their development goals and what their needs are. With an extensive global network of manpower, resources, and experiences, UNDP can assist China in implementing its “hearts and minds” projects in communities along OBOR.

China’s development is in a state of strategic transition. How it can harness international organizations to support its connection to the world and strengthen its national capacity and influence is a topic worth further discussion.

UNDP can be an implementation partner for China, promoting prosperity for countries and peoples in all OBOR countries.

This article was originally published in Wenhui Daily, 28th August. Shanghai Daily published the English version, 17th September

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