One Belt, One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World by Eyck Freymann. Harvard University Asia Center, 2021, 360 pp.
China scholar Eyck Freymann adds to the literature bin a very in-depth work on China’s Belt and Road initiative in his brand-new book, One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World.
Freymann’s work was published by Harvard University’s Asia Center—quite familiar to him as he earned both an bachelor’s of arts in East Asian History (with honors), and a master’s of arts in Asian Studies while winning the Joseph Fletcher prize for top Asian thesis while an accomplished student there. Further adding to his academic credos, he earned a master’s in philosophy from the University of Cambridge as a Henry scholar and is currently a doctoral candidate in China Area Studies at Balliol College, University of Oxford. All this to say that he is eminently erudite and qualified to write this work after several years of study and research—and he delivers quite well!
As Freymann notes in an introductory letter to the reader, this book is about China’s grand project, or yidaiyilu, literally translated from Chinese as One Belt One Road, or OBOR, as will be referred from here on. OBOR is an initiative announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 in (of all places) Kazakhstan as an effort to fund infrastructure—mostly physical—projects worldwide. Two components of OBOR primarily exist: 1) an overland network termed the New Silk Road, and 2) a maritime component termed the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Many of the projects appear to outsiders as very ambitious, and they are. Some pundits note that as America withdrew from the world stage the last four years, China has been prodigiously taking advantage of the globalization driver seat by engaging with some 65 countries who have in some way, shape or form endorsed OBOR projects. These projects range from high-speed rail, roads, power plants, pipelines, airports, undersea cables, industrial parks, data centers and the like. And while many unfamiliar with the breadth and scope of the project believe this is the Asian Marshall Plan, the differences are actually greater than the similarities, particularly when it comes to execution and implementation processes.
Freymann builds a cogent argument that for all the ambition and outreach and contractual arrangements China has made with partnering countries, most of them have placed those countries into indebtedness, with a few have even ceding sovereignty to ports and other real estate as a function of defaulted obligations. Freymann’s work is constructed in two parts (page 9). The first examines the origins of OBOR and casts it as Xi’s grand propaganda effort. The second part assesses in depth three specific case countries (Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Greece). All are very different countries in different parts of the world with overtones of Chinese political influence and maneuvering resident with each. Freymann’s justification for choosing these three (page 19) is that the original features of each are similar: adjacent to special economic zones, all are ports, and all are estimated to be between $1-10B in size.
With multiple trillions of dollars (unknown because of opacity but many estimates are between $1-8T) in total invested in an ever-expanding OBOR, one cannot help make parallels to the post-WWII Marshall Plan and the altruistic purpose for rebuilding war-torn Europe. Yet, Chinese schoolchildren are fed propaganda at a young age that the Marshall Plan was all a hegemonic scheme rather than the generous effort to get Europe functioning in the international system. In constructing his argument, Freymann first traces the origins of the OBOR and essentially debunks the notion, convincingly, that Xi did not originate the idea (page 22), while also describing how the U.S. didn’t take OBOR seriously for years and now must deal with it while behind the geopolitical 8-ball. Later on, Freymann then spends an entire chapter (in this reviewer’s opinion, unnecessarily) describing the propaganda machine underpinning support—both domestic and abroad—for OBOR, and how its goodness is a gift from the Chinese people. And while his propaganda arguments support his main thesis of China masquerading as a wolf in sheep’s clothing with OBOR’s continued rollout, the length and tedious nature of the chapter’s 24 pages, as well as the succeeding chapter, are a distraction from the main effort.
Part 2’s three case studies are constructed and articulated well. Freymann travels to all three case countries, adding credibility and depth of analysis to each. Though each case has similarities as noted earlier, the outcomes of each have thus far turned out much differently. Sri Lanka entered into what Freymann wittingly described as ‘strategic promiscuity.’ They essentially wanted to build out their port at Hambantota but couldn’t afford to do so themselves. In striking a deal with China, while courting other countries (Singapore, Oman, India—page 98) to also invest, Sri Lanka abrogated territory in a financial gamble they found themselves on the short end of a political pickle. And unfortunately, Colombo may in time find its port militarized by the Chinese which has put the entire world on notice.
Similarly, Tanzania’s Bagamoyo hub attracted Xi’s OBOR attention. Xi cultivated a receptive President Kikwete, yet when he left office in 2015, new President Magufuli was more distrustful of Chinese intentions, and for ideological reasons halted ongoing work. Tanzania’s case, Freymann notes, serves as a counterpoint to the Sri Lank case.
Unlike the outcomes of the previous cases, Greece was both receptive and willing to enter into arrangements with China at their port in Piraeus. Not only was the outcome financially beneficial to them, it was a political win, too. And ironically, Greece was also a Marshall Plan recipient. Contextually, and coming off the heels of an excruciating financial crisis, Greece was primed for external investment to jump start their economic and trade machines, and so both the timing of the negotiations and the tailored infrastructure improvement plans catalyzed the win-win for both parties.
For scholars who study China’s geopolitical actions and intent, this work adds a layer of depth and affirmation to the western bias of China as a political hegemon. Yet it is carefully, if not exhaustively, researched if not going well beyond what most would agree met the litmus test for sufficient academic argumentation. The impacts of OBOR will magnify and grow as the years pass, and as Freymann suggests, the U.S. can either compete, collaborate, or ignore the tremendous ground swell of support it is gathering across the world. How it decides to do so will also define American strength or weakness by comparison.