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Monday, September 18, 2017

BRI: Origins & Opportunities

By CEIBS Vice President & Dean Professor Ding Yuan

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This is an edited version of a keynote speech given during the CEIBS 3rd Europe Forum 2017 stop in Munich on September 13.

“I am going to try to explain to you in 15 minutes, it will be a very challenging job, about this Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). First I’d like to go through a little bit of the historical issues because President Xi Jinping didn't just pull something out of his mind. There is a historical continuity to the BRI.

If you look back in Chinese history, this blue line [from the South Pacific to Europe] existed 140 years before Jesus Christ, during the Han dynasty. There was a very famous Chinese grand voyager named Zhang Qian, who did a journey towards the West and actually covered the Central Asia area. This is what we call the Silk Road.

Then during the Ming dynasty – 1,500 to 1,600 years later – there was another big maritime voyager, named Zheng He, who traveled seven times through the South China Sea to India, and also to Kenya. When you look at the new routes presented by the Chinese BRI, you can see that it’s based on these routes.

Another important thing is that all the collaborations with different areas, different regions, was also a recognition of the accumulation of historical alliances and collaborations. The first country I’d like to talk about is Pakistan. As you know, Pakistan was, for decades, one of the most important partners of the Chinese – both on the economic side and also on the political side. Pakistan was the facilitator for normalisation of the diplomatic relationship between China and the US.

Another important area is Central Asia. The economic development, and also the political collaboration started right after the end of the Soviet Union and the creation of these independent countries in the region. The trade volume between China and these areas had already boomed before the announcement of the BRI.

Another important area, of course, is Africa. The Forum on China and Africa Cooperation was launched under the presidency of Jiang Zemin. Then Hu Jintao did a big promotion of several forums on this initiative with the business and political leaders of Africa. I was fortunate to interview Professor Jiang Jianqing, when he was still the Chairman of ICBC, about his acquisition of Standard Bank in Africa. It was right before the BRI.

Of course, last but not least, you also have Southeast Asia; China has been an observer and a partner of ASEAN since 2010. The coverage of these regions under the BRI was done under progressive economic and political links. Of course, we should also mention the importance of Europe in this geo-political vision.

Then, four years ago we had this proposal of the BRI by Xi Jinping – first in Central Asia, then in Indonesia. So this is not just a sudden event, as it is being presented in many newspapers and articles in Europe.

Behind this BRI, there are two big cornerstones – and this has constantly been repeated by Chinese political and business leaders. One is this continuity of creating more economic ties and enhancing cultural exchange. You have a soft side, people-to-people dialogue; but on the other side, of course, everything is built on this historical initiative. It’s not just a modern-day invention.

The BRI covers, according to the official announcement during the BRI forum in Beijing last May, 100 countries. It covers 60% of the population, which represents more than 20% of global trade. The accumulated investments signed between China [and other countries] under the BRI is already US$126 billion – a very big number.

But the initiative itself is much bigger than these infrastructure-building projects. There is a huge coordination in political policy between China and these BRI countries. You also have this connectivity, so we have the intangible aspects, as well as both the tangible and intangible infrastructure. In addition to tangible infrastructure such as the railways, there is also the telecommunications banking system, the custom clearance system, etc.

You also have the trade side of the story, and behind all that, there is huge financial integration. As Professor Jiang Jianqing mentioned, there is the [SINO-CEE] investment fund and there are other big vehicles. [We also see the involvement of] China Development Bank, China Import-Export Bank, as well as all the commercial banks from China. We also have the Silk Road Investment Fund, and also behind that there was also the swap of the RBS through the Central Banks of these Belt and Road countries.

What Chinese political leaders intend to replicate all over the world is the miracle behind China’s economic success stories. There is a very interesting virtual circle behind the Chinese development story and so far, so good.

The starting point is something called Development Finance, and there is a book [on the topic], that I suggest you buy. It’s in English and it was written by Chen Yuan, former chairman of China Development Bank. Development Finance is the core of Chinese development: there's a public-private collaboration and then the bank and the government will build the market on the infrastructure side.

In China, there is a saying: "To get rich, build a road first." For each province, city and county, the first thing they want to improve is the infrastructure. Once the infrastructure is built, this will create much more frequent and low-cost business exchanges between the poor areas and the connected ones.

That will cause a consumption boom in China. Once you have more consumption from an area, of course, this will facilitate trade. All that will bring more value to the infrastructure and the land, which then becomes a financially viable project. Then they can become the collateral for the next wave of development. This is the Chinese economic development model.

They want to replicate that now in Central Asia, the countries in Africa, also in Central and Eastern Europe. If you look at the BRI you will see [they are following the same pattern]. They have started with the financing, now we see a lot of banks involved, and the funds are coming. The first wave of investment will be made in the infrastructure. Once you have the infrastructure, you will boost local employment and create, of course, consumption in the local economy, which will create a lot of trade opportunities – and this will not only be for Chinese companies but for everyone.

Once you have the trade, this will create more value to the real estate, the properties where the infrastructure takes place. Then, this will provide more collateral assets towards the next wave of financing. Then you go into a virtual circle, into these underdeveloped areas.

There has been a lot of criticism about the BRI in media around the world. In the American and European media, you see a lot of doubt about the comparison with the Marshall Plan after the Second World War, and they are also worried about the lack of restrictions on the finances used in developing country without anything tied with the political regime or human rights or those issues.

Of course, there are some doubts about the financial return on this project. If you make a static analysis of this investment I totally accept the conclusion made by the German or European newspapers. However, if you take a dynamic view and if you make your analysis based on China’s past experience, maybe you will realise your story is a little bit obsolete. Based on your static analysis, nobody should have invested anything in China, and we shouldn't have seen such an economic miracle in China.

What is required is a much more long-term and dynamic view.

The second issue we sometimes see mentioned in the local media – especially in Pakistan, in Sri Lanka, but also in media in African countries – is the corruption in the local environment and also the debt. Recently we saw some articles about the railway project in Laos or the railway project in Kenya. There are some doubts about that: will the investment help alleviate poverty in the country or will it exacerbate the problem. There are also other minor areas of concerns such as the impact on the environment, racial issues, and money laundering.

We need to have a much more global vision of the BRI. We tend to focus a lot on tangible property like railways, highways, port facilities, airports or even hospitals and power stations. But the BRI is much more than the tangible improvements; it’s also about a lot of the intangible improvements related to a banking system. For example, thanks to the interconnection between ICBC and Standard Bank, now if you wire money in US dollars from China, from an ICBC account to a Standard Bank account, the money will arrive in 15 minutes. I think you cannot get this kind of efficiency even between US or European banks.

Electricity is also a big issue, especially in countries like Pakistan. I just recently talked with the Minister of Economic Development in Pakistan, and he confirmed that all this new investment from China will not only bring double-digit returns but also help to ease the strain on energy and electricity in Pakistan. You also have all these telecommunications systems, and if you go now to any of these African countries, you can really experience very fast 3G or 4G connection thanks to Huawei’s continuous improvements in their local markets.

You also have a lot of training programmes provided by the Chinese. For example, CEIBS is a joint venture between Europe and China, and we also provide a lot of training to high-level executives in Africa. Then, of course, there is the standardisation of services brought by the BRI.

[For those concerned about the BRI’s return on investment], you don't have to worry that much because the investment is made by the Chinese anyway. In addition, all these tangible and intangible infrastructure will remain and provide a very solid foundation for the development of these countries. The opportunities created by the BRI will be open to everyone.

This is totally different from Central Asia’s colonisation by the Soviet Union or Africa’s colonisation by France or the UK because at that time all the infrastructure was just made good enough to link to the coloniser. All the railways and highways from Central Asia basically went to Moscow. In Africa, you see exactly the same non-connection between the different countries.

When the Chinese arrived, the philosophy was totally different. They will create a huge integration of the local market, which means you can finally talk about Central Asia or Africa as a whole market. This will bring huge economies of scale and also a global platform for promoting consumption goods or some services in the area.

I always say to my non-Chinese friends, "Don't underestimate the patriotism and the intelligence of these business leaders in Pakistan or in the countries of Africa." They are much more international than Chinese business leaders because they graduated from elite schools in the UK, France, the US. They are fluent in English, French, they know about everything happening in the world. When they negotiate with Chinese, they are not dummies. They will protect their interests. You don't have to worry about them.

Recently there was a very interesting example of [integration via infrastructure] in Kenya. There is now a new railway between the city called Mombasa close to the sea, the Indian Ocean, and then to Nairobi. But this is just the first tranche of the railway network. The original plan was for a railway network linking the entire Eastern and Central Africa. The infrastructure will totally change the scenery of this region, which will finally become integrated.

Recently we invited the boss of FedEx to our Shanghai Campus where he gave a very interesting talk about how they now rely on the BRI to build a world-class logistics network in Africa. They are investing significantly in building a lot of logistics centres because they know that with all these roads this will be a boom for their business.

Recently I was also in France talking with the Unilever CEO for Africa. He mentioned that although they have been in Africa for more than 100 years, they are now waiting for the Chinese BRI construction to bring the market together. They will really enjoy, finally, the economies of scale to move goods easily from one country to another.

For Germany, I think there are two issues we can look on. First of all, Germany itself is located in the centre of Europe. If we can take advantage of this infrastructure investment from China we can really build Germany as the logistical centre of Europe. On the other hand Germany, as a top manufacturer of equipment and also a top financial and consulting services provider, can also greatly enjoy the opportunities offered by the BRI.

The BRI is an interesting facilitator of global trade. It's not just about infrastructure building. It will build the perspectives of developing [an integrated], advanced economy, especially on the Eurasian continent. This will also lower costs, especially transportation costs, as well as communication costs within this region. This will unlock the key markets, the next wave of consumption and global growth potential from this region.”