Some may purport the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to be a revival of the Ancient Silk Roads, yet this comparison is somewhat limited. More than a route, BRI constitutes a mission to forge, in an unprecedented timeframe, an infrastructure network that connects 50 cities in 15 countries across Eurasia and Africa to just one destination – China, the project’s hub.
Second, and unlike its ancient predecessor, the BRI hasn’t yet fully included the participants along its spokes. In short, the BRI appears to represent the building of faster transit routes and better connectivity; but it’s so far less about building trading relationships.
Of course, better connectivity on correct terms is largely welcomed. But BRI’s evolution towards the second phase will – and must – come eventually.
What we see today is the BRI’s first phase: an exercise in the construction of large-scale infrastructure – new ports, roads, railway routes that bridge east with west (and south).
The second phase should entail financing and trade opportunities that extend well beyond the trade and financing opportunities within China’s borders. It’s for this eventuality that international financial institutions should be preparing. This is still some years away – rendering the BRI, for institutions situated in the periphery at least, a lesson in patience.
A more inclusive second phase
Yet the prevailing truth is that becoming involved in the BRI has hitherto been easier said than done. Despite the attention it receives, the BRI hasn’t reached the small and medium-sized enterprises across Central Europe.
Nor has it included to a great extent Germany’s Mittelstand, which may surprise many given its engineering expertise could complement the ongoing drive for infrastructure enhancements.
Still, with greater transparency around project bidding processes, different opportunities will arise in Central Europe in what could be called the “second phase” of BRI.
Better connectivity by land and sea will inevitably increase the ease of trading. For instance, shipping Chinese cargo to Europe can take up to a month; freighting by rail could cut transit times in half.
We expect one of the eventual winners in the second phase to be Belarus. The country is not only a hub for Europe-bound trains from China, but also a centre for enterprise.
The Chinese and Belarusian governments are partnering to develop the Great Stone Industrial Park, an economic zone close to Minsk, Belarus’ capital, that aims to attract foreign and domestic investors, particularly within the IT and technology sectors – two of the country’s booming industries. Deeper trade ties should soon follow.
Undeniably, there are already major beneficiaries in Central Asia: Kazakhstan has gained from the Khorgos Gateway rail hub built in the Kazakh desert; in Uzbekistan, meanwhile, the Chinese-built, 19.2-kilometre-long Kamchiq tunnel, which forms part of the Angren-Pap railway line, has carved a route through the Qurama Mountains.
The result is that the serving railway operator no longer needs to use neighbouring Tajikistan’s rail infrastructure – saving the operator millions of dollars in fees each year.
Another project is the Meridian highway, a possible 2,000-kilometre toll road sprawling from the Belarussian border to Kazakhstan which has recently received a sign-off by the Russian government.
The road could eventually form part of a cross-continental highway connecting Hamburg to Shanghai. It’s an initiative that will drastically shorten transportation times between China and Europe, albeit at a higher cost.
The broader end-goal seems clear: fewer barriers and better connectivity should result in greater economic cooperation.
International participation imminent?
All these positive steps could well encourage further participation from international banks to finance BRI-related activities. And for banks with a strong presence in Central Europe, a healthy uptick may happen on two fronts as Central Europe more easily fulfils its role as a hub connecting east with west.
Before then, however, financial institutions have an important duty to fulfil: they must prepare their client base ahead of BRI’s advance. This means consulting with corporate and financial institution clients to ensure that they are ready and willing to transact with what may well be previously untapped markets.
For the bulk of corporates, though, we recommend being patient. After all, an ancient Chinese proverb says: “With time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”
Agnes Vargas is regional head, Financial Institutions Asia, and Hans Krohn is regional head, Financial Institutions, CIS, Commerzbank.