THE BRI IN 2018
2018 will be a year full of events for the Belt and Road Initiative. Especially, there are many electoral deadlines in countries directly or indirectly involved in the new Silk Road: Russia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand will all vote this year. In a complex project like the BRI, any variations can lead to changes on the different fields, that's why it is important to follow these elections with particular attention.
The outcome of the consultations in Russia seems to be clear, with the victory of Putin and therefore the continuation of a policy of moderate collaboration with China, and both in Indonesia and Malaysia the coalitions with more chances of victory are all in favor of a closer relationship with Beijing. In Malaysia, four projects worth 40 billion dollars were announced in the railway sector, in order to modernize the infrastructure in the country. The money comes from the funds that the Malaysian government and other public and private partners made available for the BRI, and the 40% of the the construction work will be entrusted to local companies.
The political situation in Thailand and Cambodia seems to be more risky. The repercussions of the 2014 military coup d'etat could lead to chaos and scuffles in conjunction with November's elections, and at the same time the different judicial proceedings involving many of the candidates in Cambodia are a bad influence to stability in the country.
In Thailand, Chinese companies are building a 253 km railway line between Bangkok and the province of Nakhon, while in Cambodia, recently visited by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, cooperation on the Mekong River (whose waters are shared by the two countries) is a priority. During the meeting, China and Cambodia signed more than 19 bilateral agreements, and 34 contracts were signed between the companies of the two countries.
Getting closer to Italy, if in Germany there will be a new government formed by the SPD-CDU-CSU coalition as it seems, the policy followed in general regarding China, and therefore regarding the BRI, will not change much: in 2016 and 2017 China was the first business partner for Germany. German policy will therefore be characterized by extended commercial openness, but with a tightening on Chinese acquisitions in some strategic sectors (last July Germany published new regulations on this subject and is now pushing for the adoption of guidelines at European level). France has discovered the BRI with a little delay, but intends to make up quickly: Emmanuel Macron went to Xi'an, the gateway to western China, on the occasion of the state visit in early December.
Regarding Italy, given the current marginal role of the country in the Chinese strategy compared to Germany, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, it is not clear whether the new government that in March will (perhaps) emerge from the elections, will be able to focus on these issues and develop a strategy in order to benefit from the various BRI projects. Of course, the alternative - that is to devote all their strength tackling issues of modest proportions and that do not go beyond the horizon of the Alps - means to condamn the country to endure the choices of others.
In the new year further relations between China and the United Kingdom could be tightened. The two countries, now joined by a direct rail link, can benefit from their mutual ambitions: Beijing wants a bridge to further penetrate the European market, and the commercial activism of the United Kingdom can be useful; at the same time Theresa May's government is willing to establish new relations considering the imminent Brexit. To do this, however, the United Kingdom will have to establish post-Brexit agreements that can allow goods, services and assets coming from the UK, an access to the market, equal to the previous one, and this is not at all obvious.
One of the major risks, for the BRI and beyond, is the United States led by Donald Trump. If Obama's successor seems to disavow the openings towards the Pacific of his predecessors, at the same time his disinterest in foreign trade and its protectionist behaviour could widen the sphere of influence of Beijing. Above the ocean, however, there is the uncertainty and the unpredictability of Trump and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. A further escalation could bring problems to neighboring China which, even if since a long time dumped the indefinetely defense of North Korea, would be in serious troubles with a situation of instability in the proximity.
About Africa, a continent still under Chinese attention, always in the hydroelectric sector, a consortium of Chinese companies led by CGGC, announced the construction of a plant with four dams and twelve turbines in the state of Taraba, Nigeria, for an investment of almost six billion dollars.
Other projects already announced and financed by China all around the world will instead have to be reconsidered, given the numerous difficulties encountered on the organizational and bureaucratic level. These projects could include high-speed rail links in the Balkans, which risk being delayed and are not well seen by Brussels, that fears losing its influence in the region.
2018 will also be the year of Chinese soft power, according to the experts. Beijing is not yet able to exercise the same attractiveness as Washington, and Chinese cultural products, also because of a linguistic matter, struggle to penetrate the Western world. Something is however already moving: in the fashion field, for example, many brands have started collaborating with actors, stars and fashion bloggers beyond the Great Wall, increasing not only their presence and sales volume in China, but also the international recognition of these celebrities.
Among the BRI related events in the new year there will also be an International Expo linked to imports in China, to be held in Shanghai from 5 to 10 November 2018, with the blessing of the World Trade Organization: an important event in 2018, an year that seems to be special for China in terms of the BRI. Overcoming the impasses caused by budgetary, political and financial problems and launching a new, exciting phase for the Silk Road of the new millennium is in fact one of the ways to 'realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation' of which Xi Jinping talked at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.