Much has been made of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR), the new trade routes Beijing plans to build in the years ahead.
The project’s ultimate goal is to increase China’s exports and connect China’s interior provinces with Europe. OBOR is made up of two different routes: The first of these is One Belt, which calls for the building of new infrastructure, mostly roads and railroads, going through Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe; the other is One Road, or new Maritime Silk Road, which envisages the construction or purchase of ports, from China westward.
Despite mostly being a network of roads and ports devised to spur China’s economic growth, such an ambitious project has been billed by many as a new Marshall Plan. Or even more pompously, as the attempt by China to challenge America’s world supremacy.
However, there is simply no way for China to attain world primacy through One Belt, One Road. For many apparent reasons. First, OBOR infrastructures will probably never be built, as financing them would be way too costly for China (and for any other power).
Also, if ever completed, One Belt would pass through some of the most instable countries in the world, especially in Central Asia, and those countries could shut Chinese goods and personnel off if they ever wanted to. Furthermore, those ports won’t turn into bases for Chinese navy or army, as the countries located on the New Silk Roads will have to welcome Chinese troops first and China’s Armed Forces are not yet able to deploy abroad for an extended period of time.
Yet, there’s another reason which is more important than others. If it ever took place, One Belt, One Road won’t provide a fundamental prerequisite of hegemony: It won’t turn China into an import-oriented country. A true imperial nation, the one at the center of the international system, has to import many more goods than it exports, as that is the only way to create dependency between itself and the rest of the system.
More precisely, the US is the world' only hegemon because it runs a massive trade deficit, not despite of it. That is also why throughout history no world hegemon has ever been a net exporter.
OBOR, nonetheless, has been conceived to increase China’s exports and to allow Beijing to sell part of its industrial surplus (i.e. a surplus in steel). An initiative stemming out of necessity and which runs counter to the imperial grammar.
Even if OBOR ran both ways – which it won’t - China’s domestic market is nowhere as deep as America’s and those countries along the New Silk Roads need to export more in order to survive rather than importing more from China.
In the end, one can fairly state that One Belt, One Road is mostly posturing and wishful thinking. But if taken seriously, OBOR might help China increase its exports and help countries along the way improve their infrastructures.
The only thing it won’t do is allow China to replace the US as the world's only hegemon.