The Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious and bold policy, which has already proven to be a key driving factor for global growth. It focuses on developing major roads, sea lanes, air links and digital highways – but its whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. What it will ultimately bring is an almost unprecedented level of connectivity, spanning more than 60 countries – among which China has led the way.
Connectivity is the key to growth in the modern world. And while in some ways Belt and Road echoes the successes of the past – notably the legendary Silk Road – the initiative is equally forward-looking, and sets the tone for global cooperation in the 21st Century. Just as markets know no borders, no country can grow in isolation. Building long term linkages and interdependencies are the true drivers of lasting peace.
Prudent economic diplomacy is vital in our increasingly globalised world. President Xi Jinping’s ambitious efforts to reinvigorate historic trade routes and develop new ones is a vital step to boosting the integration of the global economy. China’s progressive economic policies have already been a vital factor in improving linkages for trade and investment in Asia. The recent rush of international banks to be part of the initiative further shows the level of global demand that exists for such an ambitious approach.
The additional benefits which come with major infrastructure development – including the greater flow of goods and people- to- people contact – are the guarantors for prosperity. The Belt and Road Initiative will lead to substantial job creation, which in turn will boost trade between markets and countries. It will encourage the movement of people, something that in turn will bring greater cross-cultural understanding and tolerance. While the challenge of any large-scale initiative will always be its implementation, the growth of industrial estates around the new routes should raise living standards and increase opportunities for even greater cooperation for millions of people. As the economy grows, we will see rising incomes, greater manufacturing capacity and increased consumption levels and market power.
But the true benefits of such initiatives go far beyond the economic. Roads open minds, markets and opportunities. They help people improve their lives, and those of their families. These are the true drivers of peace.
A key part of the Belt and Road Initiative involves investing in expanding digital highways throughout the partnering countries, and is another crucial driver for prosperity. The mind set of consumers has changed radically – they are no longer constrained by what is on offer in their local stores, or even their country. Companies like Alibaba have been key in delivering this opportunity – Alibaba is now a global phenomenon and is playing an important part in developing digital highways. Technology allows consumers to access markets on a much wider scale, bringing faster and more efficient delivery of products, as well as taking friction out of the process of buying and selling. Complementing this is the creating of digital banks, which is occurring across the world. The nature of financial services is changing, as we become more interconnected. This in turn creates a host of new opportunities for globalisation and greater efficiency.
One country which has already seen a significant benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative is Pakistan. This is a lifelong partnership which has further reinforced the historically strong relationship between the two countries. As I witnessed first hand in office, China and Pakistan have a truly win-win relationship, which is neither dependent on temporary events, nor directed against any other country. In many ways, it is a model in how bilateral relations should be. The countries share a border and a commonality of interests, and it is mutually beneficial for them to support each other’s stability and prosperity.
Countries must realise that helping their neighbours thrive will help them in the long run, too. It is ultimately in their national interest to encourage stability at each side of their borders. It is also important to realise that with rising global influence comes greater responsibility. In order to display reach beyond their own land, countries need to share their success and vision with the rest of the world.
There must also be the financial infrastructure to support such development. The creation of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) is a significant contribution for the region’s future prosperity, which has helped fill the space for a modern global institution. The AIIB has been designed to provide financing and technical expertise to drive growth, and build a new financial infrastructure. It has the benefit of not being tied by historic rules or traditions, and was founded on the principles of meritocracy, transparency, high standards of governance and modern management practices.
Meanwhile, the Bretton Woods institutions, which were created in the aftermath of the Second World War, would benefit from improvement and restructuring, in order to be brought into the 21st Century. The time has come for them to better reflect the reality and needs of the world we live in.
As well as building a new architecture for global cooperation, we must also resolve long-standing tensions and differences and manage any potential points of tension through diplomacy and dialogue. The world will greatly benefit from a stronger, stable Asia – particularly in the face of increasingly complex security challenges we collectively face. Several global challenges require cooperation at the highest levels, which will only be possible when there is a reserve of trust built up. There is no better way to do this than through economic diplomacy, which helps nations build a shared future.
Looking ahead, there needs to be a concerted effort to ensure that growth is distributed as equitably as possible. Closing the gap on inequality and building a fair society, with opportunities to all citizens, is a target all countries should strive towards.
There is also a constant need to innovate, increase trade and investment, and have access to markets all over the world. Irrespective of its level of development, all countries require ongoing reform, coupled with improvements in governance – it must be a continuous process.
With the Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping has provided China with a bold new direction, an offer of a bright future – one that could be emulated by other countries around the world. Further integration and cooperation of this kind should be encouraged, not only for the benefit of Asia, but also for Europe, Africa and the world as a whole.
H.E. Shaukat Aziz is Former Prime Minister of Pakistan.