China’s leaders have a liking for grand initiatives, so much so that the efforts to transform the Greater Bay Area can’t even take top billing in policy terms, despite its huge ambitions. That title probably goes to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an investment programme pursued with gusto since its launch by Xi Jinping five years ago. What do the two campaigns have in common?
The BRI is modelled on the ancient Silk Road and is unashamedly global in its ambitions to build a network of trade corridors between China and the rest of the world. Although there are international implications in the way that the GBA wants to upgrade its cities and its industries, its plan is primarily domestic by design. However, there are overlaps between the two policies: both have been created as high-level initiatives, rather than detailed blueprints; both require massive investment in areas like transport, energy and urbanisation: and both are multi-year projects whose impact will take time to appreciate.
At least the participants in the plan for the GBA are clearly defined, which is very different to the BRI, where almost every Chinese city claims an integral role. Because Belt and Road reaches out far beyond Chinese borders, it is much more contentious as well. That’s less the case for the ambitions for the GBA, although there’s still scope for friction with some Hongkongers, fearing an erosion of their rights under “one country, two systems”. There will be a lot more infighting among the other cities as integration efforts pick up pace as well.
Which of the GBA’s cities have the best claim to being Belt and Road bedfellows, however? The BRI’s main arteries are divided between the rail routes that cross through central Asia into Europe and the sea-lanes that stretch towards southeast Asia and further beyond. Cities in western and central China are better positioned to benefit from the railways, especially places like Chongqing, where many of the freight trains originate. Cities further south attach more importance to the maritime routes. Here the GBA’s Guangzhou is prominent, even though most of the maps of the Maritime Silk Road, as it has come to be known, show a starting point further up the coast in Fuzhou.
Guangzhou prides itself on its heritage as the ‘southern gate’ for China’s foreign trade and the modern-day city regards itself as the GBA’s maritime heart, strengthened by a special zone in neighbouring Nansha set up to attract the shipping sector and serve as a logistics hub for manufacturers on the western side of the Pearl River.
Shenzhen, which boasts a much larger container port further east, disputes these claims, although competition is set to intensify with the opening of a new railway linking Nansha’s terminals with the nearby cities of Jiangmen, Zhongshan, Foshan and Guangzhou.
Hong Kong also likes to describe itself as a gateway to the BRI although its claim comes more as a ‘super connector’ between China and the rest of the world, and more specifically as a provider of finance and professional services for all the new roads, railways and power plants being built under the Belt and Road banner.
Other cities in the GBA will hope to win their own share of Belt and Road business as all this infrastructure investment starts to materialise, triggering deeper trade between the region and overseas. After all, the original Silk Road was a way of delivering Chinese goods to Europe. Now the exporters of the GBA are looking to Belt and Road to do something similar today.
In this sense the two policies will begin to converge, sharing an outward-looking ethos and an emphasis on trade and investment, some of it inside China, but much of it with the wider world.