The underlying motive of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative

Photo: Jacoline Schoonees/CC BY-ND 2.0

China claims that its One Belt One Road Initiative aims at promoting international cooperation and encouraging globalisation. To some, it is also President Xi Jinping’s plan to establish himself as China’s third “core” leader.

 By Tan Zhi Xin

 China will soon hold the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. The forum functions as a platform to promote the Belt and Road Initiative and opportunities for international cooperation. It will be China’s biggest diplomatic event in 2017. More than 110 countries represented by 28 leaders would be attending the event.

Many countries are eager to get a share of the pie as Western powers retreat into isolation. Countries like Australia and India are skeptical of the initiative. These countries believe that OBOR is a masterstroke of China to dominate the world.

OBOR as a springboard to dominate the world is only one account. Too little attention is paid to the underlying motive of Xi Jinping who articulated this scheme. Xi is possibly the most powerful Chinese leader after Mao Zedong (or Deng Xiaoping), can we understand OBOR as Xi’s political tool to feed his ego and establish him as the third “core” leader?

How powerful is Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping does not have the cult-like influence and the revolutionary-era credibility both Mao and Deng had. The two paramount leaders’ power grew from a mixture of charisma, reputation as a revolutionary strategic thinker, and promises for a new era for China. Mao commanded mass movements easily while Deng transformed China with his radical economic reforms. Xi has neither of these and never will, considering how he had to work his way up despite having a relatively powerful father.

Xi was able to break the tradition of collective leadership and consensus building, and rule like a dictator. He has the ability to create and implement policies without chaos given that he has made himself the head of various “commissions” or “central leading groups” that give him the final say over almost everything, ranging from the Taiwan issue to economic reforms.

The anti-corruption campaign is by far the largest organised attempt of Xi to consolidate power. Corruption is the most endemic problem plaguing China. Xi kills two birds with one stone by tackling corruption immediately upon taking office. He cleans up malfeasance within the party ranks and stamps out factionalism and networks of personal loyalty. He also used the campaign as an opportunity to weed out political opponents. As He Pin, editor of overseas Chinese news portal Boxun wrote, Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Ling Jihua, and Xu Caihou are like the modern day “Gang of Four“, whose real crime was not corruption but conspiring to usurp power.

The “Gang of Four” is a political faction made up of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and her associates Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao. The faction rose to power during the Cultural Revolution and was later charged with a series of treasonous crimes after Mao’s death.

OBOR can help establish Xi as the third “core” leader

The concept of “core” leader was formulated by Deng in the 1990s. It means that despite the collective leadership, there is one man who heads this leadership. New York-based Chinese-language news website,, describes a “core” leader as one who comes to the fore of the party at critical times to rescue it.

Mao and Deng are recognised as the “core” leader of their times. Mao pulled China out of the ideological crisis, while Deng rescued the country from the economic ruins left by Mao. The lack of a fitting trigger since Xi entered office is perhaps one reason why despite being declared a “core” leader, he denies being called one.

Statistically, Xi is far from the two paramount leaders in terms of concrete achievements. Official numbers regarding GDP growth rates in the early Mao era is unavailable, but World Bank data shows even during the Cultural Revolution period, the growth continued.

Between 1978 and 1995 when Deng was in office, the Chinese economy grew at an average of 9.5% annually. In the years from 1992 to 1995 when Deng ruled unofficially, China chalked up double-digit growth rates.

GDP growth rate of China (1978 – 1995 in annual %)

Xi pales in comparison. In the past 4 years, the growth rate has been declining. It went from 7.9% in 2012 to 6.7% in 2016, which is the lowest in 26 years. Pundits predict that the decline will continue into 2017 with an estimated growth of only 6.5%.

OBOR is a solution for China’s domestic industrial overcapacity. Infrastructure building is one of the biggest components of the OBOR. The main point is not to release excess steel, glass, and cement capacity through infrastructural building per se. This is because it is not economically viable. OBOR will not provide China a large enough market to absorb its excess capacity sufficiently. David Dollar, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy, Global Economy and Development at the Brooking Institutions writes in a paper, “In steel alone, China would need US$60 billion per year of extra demand to absorb excess capacity. The economies of Central Asia are not that large.”

Diffusion index of oversupply in domestic market

Instead, China hopes that by helping neighboring countries build infrastructures such as railway tracks, it could reach and explore more markets. This allows China to export its goods to more places.

“It’s not a win-win, as the Chinese like to say. It is China seeking to dominate”, says a senior European Nation’s diplomat. The biggest winner is China and the ultimate winner is Xi Jinping.

The initiative is about expanding China’s political influence at the international level and challenging the current United States-led global order. It is essentially a choice between China and the U.S. With Donald Trump leading the U.S and his anti-globalisation policies, many countries are eager to befriend China. The area covered by OBOR is inhabited by 70% of the global population and holds 75% of the world’s energy resources. Together, that makes up to 55% of the global GDP.

When established powers are struggling with domestic problems, OBOR presents China with a platform to step up its power play. Beijing is interested in global leadership. For the first time, Xi Jinping said that China should guide the international community in globalisation.

Successful OBOR will give China control over vital sea and land routes, further increasing its influence in the international community. This is especially useful considering the various territorial conflicts China is embroiled in at the moment. Xi will be remembered as the man who pushed for greater Chinese role in the international community.

Xi perceives OBOR as the springboard for him to establish himself as China’s third “core” leader after Mao and Deng. Given the retreating of Western powers into isolation and Trump leading the U.S, there seems to be a widening space for a new world leader. OBOR can help China fill up the gap and claim the title of the new global leader. Then, Xi can sit comfortably at the top of the pyramid.