21st-century version of Silk Road
The keynote speech by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping during the opening ceremony of the first ever OBOR (One Belt One Road) summit held in Beijing recently contained an outline of the financial offers for infrastructure development along the OBOR map. Indeed, he upped the mercury by announcing a further USD 14.5 billion to the fund and the summit is being attended by heads of states of 29 countries including Russia, Turkey and Pakistan. Most conspicuous is the absence of India. As an article in The Economic Times (India) stated,"OBOR in its current form encompasses all of South Asia sans India and Bhutan and enhances strategic heft in the same countries where India also has huge stakes including connectivity initiatives and infrastructure projects launched during past three years."
That notwithstanding, representatives from 80 countries, both senior and not-so-senior officials are attending the summit because OBOR promises to be as big, if not bigger than the Marshall plan rolled out after World War II (for the reconstruction of devastated Europe). The fear in many capitals of the West is that with a budget of around USD 124 billion for the purposes of boosting infrastructure (money sorely needed by emerging economies like Bangladesh), the balance of economic power will shift squarely to Beijing. We will have to wait and see if that is truly the case, but for the moment, countries like Bangladesh are keeping an open eye to see what is on offer.
The buzz word making the rounds remains "financial inclusivity". As President Xi pointed out "no matter if they are from Asia and Europe, or Africa or the Americas, they are all cooperative partners in building the Belt and Road." One can understand Indian scepticism about OBOR, especially in light of the fact that the USD 55 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor runs through some disputed territory and will in effect; help transform the economic landscape of its arch rival. This time round, the world's premier lending bodies did not skip the meet. As pointed out by Reuters "leaders from 29 countries attended the forum, as well as the heads of the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Britain's finance minister told the summit his country was a 'natural partner' in the new Silk Road."
OBOR promises to plug some of the gaps in infrastructure financing that developing countries need in Asia. For Bangladesh, the appeal is obvious. The idea of replicating the China experience, even at a much scaled down version, is hardly lost upon anyone. We have taken the first baby steps in setting up of an EPZ for Chinese investment. Indeed, as pointed out by Professor of International Affairs of Renmin University of China Wange Yiwei, Bangladesh may indeed be one of the first beneficiaries of special finance. "Bangladesh is one of the first choices for Chinese investors. That's why many Chinese entrepreneurs are engaged in many mega infrastructural projects in Bangladesh like Padma Bridge."
Given our bitter experience over alleged graft on the Padma Bridge project that set our infrastructure and connectivity plans back several years, Chinese involvement in financing (and construction) comes as a much welcome relief — financing without political strings attached. In fact, that is perhaps one of the biggest selling points of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which, according to the Chinese premier hopes to forge a path based on "inclusiveness" and "free trade" as opposed to "diplomatic power games". These are what policymakers of the developing countries have been waiting to hear for decades and only time will tell whether Chinese stewardship of AIIB and the OBOR initiative is truly devoid of the power games we have been witness to for years.
OBOR and the advent of AIIB present Bangladesh with unique opportunities. The country's communications infrastructure requires billions of dollars' of investments to upgrade and we would be wise to stay out of regional rivalries that are a natural phenomenon in global politics. At the end of the day, Bangladesh will have to provide millions of jobs to the vast majority of its population (two-thirds of the population is aged below 30) and those will have to come through industry in the coming decades. If we are really serious about building Bangladesh as a regional hub for trade and commerce, then those billions will come in very handy and being linked to OBOR can only help us get there faster.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.