In Beijing last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over the first “Belt and Road Forum.” Xi calls it the “project of the century.”
Xi’s plan is to integrate Eurasia through a trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative linking China to Europe, with extensions to Southeast Asia and East Africa. Poor countries would receive badly needed roads and rail lines, and Chinese firms would boost investment in European ports and railways. Marco Polo would be proud.
Of course, China’s motives aren’t purely benevolent. It is hoping for high returns from One Belt, One Road; the project will soak up excess steel capacity and cement capacity in Chinese firms, and better trading connections to fit China’s development needs.
But shipping goods overland to Europe is twice as expensive as sea transport. There is also the risk posed by unpaid debt from projects that fail. And security threats will bedevil projects crossing so many national borders.
Whether One Belt, One Road succeeds will test the arguments of two visionary thinkers.
A century ago, the British strategist Halford Mackinder argued that whoever controlled the Eurasian heartland would control the world. American strategy, by contrast, has long favored the insights of the nineteenth-century strategist Alfred Mahan, who emphasized sea power and the maritime fringes of countries and continents.
At the end of World War Two, George F. Kennan incorporated Mahan’s geostrategic focus on rimlands, rather than heartlands, into his Cold War strategy of containment of the Soviet Union to create a favorable balance of power.
China’s bets are on Mackinder and Marco Polo, while America’s money is on Mahan and Kennon.
Asia has its own balance of power. As China asserts itself strategically, including by engaging in territorial disputes with its neighbors, it has tended to drive major Asian actors like India, Japan, and Vietnam into America’s arms.
But it is hard to know whether that will be true beyond China’s immediate neighborhood, or whether, under Donald Trump, America’s arms will be open. One Belt, One Road will provide China with geopolitical gains as well as costs, but whether it will be a global game changer, as some believe, remains to be seen.