Although some commentators believe the project may help create Chinese and Central Asian economic growth; and more important, will signal a shift in China’s international relations towards focus in Central Asia, President Xi has been prudent not to raise these sorts of expectations…wisely so. Given the project’s complexity and the inexperience of the central Asian countries involved in infrastructure development, One Belt One Road may in reality lose money for China and the Central Asian countries involved. Furthermore, one may doubt the utility of allies in Central Asia.
In reality, One Belt One Road at its core is a practical move by President Xi to ensure China’s energy security and solidify support of the Chinese Military. The new infrastructure lanes from One Belt One Road through Central and South Asia will provide China with oil and other supply if trade in the South China Sea is cut off in the case of South China Sea territorial disputes or a conflict with the United States over Taiwan. The real power of backup oil supply is not just to help in the case China goes to war; it is a tremendous signal towards Taiwan and countries with claim in the South China Sea that the People’s Republic of China is prepared for war and maritime blockades. The extra supply lanes provided by the One Belt One Road project will no doubt increase China’s negotiating power over countries with claims in the South China Sea and help intimidate Taiwanese politicians.
It is important to note why it is so important for China to defend claims to the Nine Dashed Line in the South China Sea and oversee the incorporation of Taiwan. Since the communists came to power in China, it has been a point of political propaganda to underscore that both Taiwan and the South China Sea belong to the PRC and are a part of China’s historical and national identity. In the eyes of many Chinese, the legitimacy of the Communist party is underpinned by its ability to incorporate Taiwan and lay claim to the South China Sea. In this sense, One Belt One Road is instrumental to maintaining the party’s legitimacy, especially as the country heads towards an economic slowdown and deals with increasing income inequality.
As President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign will win him legitimacy among the Chinese people, so will President Xi’s One Belt One Road policy win him legitimacy in the Chinese Communist Party. Unlike the legendary Mao ZeDong and Deng XiaoPing, President Xi lacks the revolutionary and hero-like aura in the party, and particularly the military, that Mao and Deng had. By overhauling this vast strategic project, he will likely win support from leaders in the People’s Liberation Army, which his predecessors Mao and Deng understood well when they respectively launched the Cultural Revolution and the bloody crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen protests. By increasing China’s ability to economically withstand a war in the South China Sea or a blockade of trade, the leaders of the People’s Liberation Army will certainly gain more influence in the party, and be grateful to their patron, Xi Jinping.
One Belt One Road is the policy of CPC maverick Xi JinPing to win support within the party. It will surely provide a supply lifeline for China in the case of war, and will enhance China’s ability to negotiate in the South China Sea and over Taiwan. Although One Belt One Road may become a catalyst for open relations, soft power, and more economic growth as many hope, only time can tell if these less pragmatic concerns will solidify. As One Belt One Road solidifies Xi’s position as the paramount leader of the CPC, he will gain the power and legitimacy to make his Chinese Dream come true.