Should the World be worried about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?

Policy makers and politician across the World are stunned and watching with consternation, the massive ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ undertaken by China. Is this infrastructure investment project centered on China? Is this similar to nation building foundational utilities for a nation similar to building freeways, electricity and other amenities? Keynesian theory has been underpinning the development of several countries across the world. It has consistently shown results and it is this formulation that scares the policy makers across the world. Should the world not be worried?

BRI China

Fundamentally this infrastructure investment cannot be based on flawed interpretation of the vision for the future. However, it assumes a unipolar work wherein, they are extrapolating the analysis of the last 25 – 40 years of fulfilling the global demand for products, especially in Europe and North America. This intelligence is based on few fundamental assumptions that the world will forever be a unipolar manufacturing house, wherein the customers are perpetually based in Europe and North America. As long as the status quo remains, i.e., China is the manufacturing hub and the consumers are the developed world, this assumption provides a competitive advantage by investing in Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Somewhere, this model emulates how the US-UK controls the Suez or Panama Canal and its impact of the global economic flow. Let us understand the situation other than the happy path.

Increasing competition:

First, in the last few decades, the world has grown more multipolar. There is significant competition amongst the nations for capturing the marketplace. Especially those nations, which were at the precipice, are gradually bouncing back to garner their share in global economy. After their chaotic transition, these nations are gradually stabilizing and as the maturity proceeds, they will enter the fray and be competitive.

Dwindling Customer Base in First World:

Last decade has been a testimony to how several Western European countries are gradually receding economic footprint or into recession. This will eventually erode the customer base from Europe. Overall, the population growth is stabilizing and the median age is rising. That does not mean, the customer base will vanish altogether. However, even a modest erosion of customer base from Europe would wipe the profits to make it uncompetitive.

Does that mean the global demand for consumption will decrease? The answer is obviously no. Where is the consumer base moving? First, the consumption will not decrease; instead, it will increase, as is indicated by several policy planners. This will follow phasic manner – the initial burst and the sustained period. The immediate burst will be centered on China, India and South East Asia and the sustained phase will be around the growing economies from African Nations and Latin America along with the traditional customer base in North America and Europe. South East Asia, China and the Indian peninsula will has a potential future growth due to dual factors – rising income levels and incremental recruitment of the expanding population base to propel the consumer market. The sustainment phase will be due to two major pockets – the traditional consumer base in Europe and North America and the expanding base in rising economies. Irrespective, the consumer base will move and be multipolar.

Transition of Blue Collar to White Collar Workforce in China:

As the population is China evolves makes a transition from blue collar to white collar, it will also see an increase in consumption. This can be very well corroborated with the Maslow’s phases of self-actualization. This transition will not support the earlier model of cheap low cost labor required to support a manufacturing economy. In fact, the white collar will propel consumption and China will move towards a net consumer economy.

Collaborative rather than pugilistic policies:

In the last decade, China has been increasingly assertive, lean heavily towards currency manipulation, disrespect world order and hegemonist in its approach. All these would deter the business environment and move the fulcrum towards unfriendly business environment, not realizing the impact of its short sighted policies at the detriment of its national cause.

Simply following Keynesian theory and investing in infrastructure in unlikely to propel the country in eschewing the benefits of it investment policy. China knows that and it will not be a surprise to see either the partner nations pulling out of such collaborations or China itself pulling out of such investment execution with the resultant fall in those ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ bridges.

The Economist | Planet China