Just one day after Italy became the first Western power to endorse China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative, France and China agreed to sign trade deals worth billions of euros. The ties include opening up the Chinese market for some farm goods, such as poultry, and the potential for a multi-billion dollar deal for China to buy dozens of Airbus planes. Despite the opening of a trade relationship, Paris has also taken this opportunity to push back against Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative. The initiative consists of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, and comprises a multi-trillion dollar plan spanning 68 countries, which collectively account for 60 percent of the world’s population and up to 40 percent of global GDP. It essentially aims to link China by sea and land with Southeast and Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, through an infrastructure network on the lines of the old Silk Road. French President Emmanuel Macron hopes to forge a united European front to counter China’s advances. Such a move by Macron directly relates to some concepts in IPE.
One of the main critiques of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative is that it does not do enough to promote economic development in the countries that the project passes through. The nexus between regime type and sustained development has been a central theme of this block. The initiative is said to leave developing countries with large debt burdens that they can’t pay off, and thus are largely dependent on China. The enormous investments China has poured into OBOR countries have not occurred with a simultaneous growth in local governance. Because these countries lack institutions that strength accountability, transparency, and participation in the infrastructure projects, the OBOR will likely lead to any sort of long-term economic growth beyond the Chinese borders. Many of these countries lack a strong rule of law that protects private ownership rights, enforce the proper distribution and use of investment funds, and the crack down on cronyism. In other words, strong and inclusive local institutions are necessary prerequisites for sustained growth—and they are missing in the OBOR countries. What these problems elucidate is that the success of the OBOR lies in the hands of other nations, not in China’s. For Xi Jinping and his lofty goals of fulfilling a Chinese “dream” and rejuvenation, this will be his central challenge.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why France struggles to get behind the project.