It was five year ago that China's president Xi Jinping launched what he coined as the 'Belt and Road Initiative(BRI)' which found a new legitimacy at his address at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. Since then, Europe is excited about his initiative and there are heated debates in European parliaments and among opinion makers. Europe needs emerging markets in Asia to sustain its economy. It needs better market access and faster and cost effective connectivity to entire Asia and Africa- which constitute a growing market. BRI appears to help Europe meet its need in an effective and meaningful manner.
BRI in Europe, by and large, is perceived as an ambitious plan to upgrade infrastructure and connectivity across Eurasia. However there is scepticism and debates about the true scope of the initiative and the motivations behind it as BRI ambition extends far beyond the belt and road initiative. It is perceived as a way for China to reduce its dependence on energy imports coming through the Malacca Strait and a strategy to boost its exports and deepen its global integration to increase its political influence and create vassal states.
In the next few months, China will host its second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. The first one was promising and well attended by Europe also. The Think Tanks and experts in Switzerland are now in the process of preparing themselves to find answers to some of these agitating questions and come up with a clear understanding on BRI before the said event in Beijing.
Europe is excited about the legacy of fabled Silk Roads - a term coined in the 1870s to explain exchanges between the Han dynasty China and the Mediterranean and Europe.
The Belt and Road Initiative has smartly been branded by the Chinese to capitalise on the branding of the Silk Roads. The BRI initiative has to do more with investment and infrastructure expansion than global connectivity via sea and land routes connections. So far it has done well but Europe is largely skeptical about it.
Europe does not accept changes easily and without thoroughly evaluating challenges. The BRI seems to pose a number of challenges to Europe identified by experts as project evaluation, project viability, specific debt loads, national debt commitments; 'real' Chinese motivations, hostility of political parties in host countries, significant US pressures on the BRI concept, the internal political system and climate within China, the global financial markets and the pressures they are under, climate change, new technologies and more. Investors in Europe are therefore quite cautious.
The on-going consultative process in Europe will soon conclude on the advantages the BRI offers to its economy. The hub of BRI is the port of Rotterdam in Europe and much is being debated and worked upon in this continent to promote and brand this port.
What is there for Pakistan to capitalise on in case Europe fully subscribes to BRI? The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the key corridor and an essential part of BRI offering the most time and cost effective connectivity between Europe and China and into the Pacific.
CPEC needs branding in Europe. In this regard Swiss Business Council of Pakistan took the initiative of organising events in early 2018 at Islamabad and Karachi in collaboration with the Swiss Embassy at Islamabad and the Swiss Consulate at Karachi. These events were attended, among others, by the ambassadors of various European and Asian capitals.
Also, in mid-2018, the Swiss Business Council organized similar events in Switzerland in collaboration with Swiss Chambers of Commerce where the CPEC as a link between Europe and Asia and the Pacific was well branded. It is, therefore, about time the government of Pakistan took the initiative of promoting the CPEC branding aggressively under a well structured strategy.
(The writer is former President of Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry)