Trojan Dragon?

Austria is likely to benefit from the New Silk Road, the mammoth Chinese infrastructure project spanning two continents. But strategic thinkers in Washington and European capitals are warning of the Götterdämmerung of the 20th century geopolitical hegemony of the Western world.

A beer-mat sized report in the daily Der Standard: That the Austrian government is planning a joint venture with neighboring Slovakia to extend the (Russian) broad gauge rail link from Kosice (SK) to Vienna may not sound like a geopolitical news sensation.

However it puts tiny Austria at the tip of what is currently the world’s greatest infrastructure project – China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to link Chinese industry with its markets through Central Asia, Russia and Western Europe.  More popularly known as the New Silk Road, it will supposedly link 4.4 billion people, over 60% of the world’s population and nearly 30% of global GDP (reports Abu Dhabi based institute TRENDS Research & Advisory).

This massive Chinese outreach has set off alarm bells to Western political and military strategic planners.

A trawl of political cartoons often sums up the different takes on issues of the day: The new world power China is sometimes depicted as a fearsome dragon, sometimes a cuddly panda bear. The cover of the Economist (London) perhaps hit the middle ground: a cute panda in the classical profile of a lone wolf howling at the (red!) moon. Of course China’s Xi Jinping is committing this huge investment to further China’s own interests. And of course it will bring economic benefits to dozens of other countries, jobs, local infrastructure and connectivity to the world. The question for the hard-headed strategists in Washington is, what will it all mean for us in the West?

“What China Threat?” asked ex diplomat and political science professor Kishore Mahbubani in New York based magazine Harper’s in February this year. His review ranged from the sunny to the somber:  He quoted political pundit Francis Fukuyama “the end of history” thesis from 1989, meaning that Western liberal democracy was the final form of human governance, the dominant system to which autocratic regimes would ultimately evolve.  Like most grandiloquent predictions, this was soon trashed by real life – read Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey or Xi’s China.

By 2018 General Joseph Dunford, chairman of America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, had few doubts: “China probably will pose the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” Despite current bickering, a threat to the USA is a threat to all in the West – and it is only a few years away.  

This leaves the question open: Is China’s BRI project a generous gift to the Eurasian economic bloc or a sinister trojan horse?  Almost certainly Beijing planners see the nuts and bolts stuff on the ground – roads, rails, bridges and ports – as only part of a larger scheme. A report in Britain’s usually moderate The Guardian was forthright: “The Belt and Road is terrifying … Beijing will use trade routes to increase its influence and export an authoritarian brand of politics.” It short, it is  “an infrastructure power grab.”

The U.S. broadcaster CNBC was more specific: A large part of China’s BRI has less to do with highways and more with constructing communications networks, a “digital Silk Road”. Researchers at the American think tank the Council on Foreign Relations added that Chinese players could insert “backdoor mechanisms that could increase [Beijing’s] intelligence and propaganda operations in BRI partner countries.” This would effectively create the tools for electronic surveillance across the two continents.  The present fuss around Huawei and its powerful position in the next generation G5 network is indicative.

Reaching even more deeply is China’s education program for young people in the developing countries the Silk Road crosses. A generous scholarship scheme enables students from countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan to attend top Chinese universities where they acquire state of the art technology – and the language of the world’s up and coming economic power.

Sensible or sinister? Buying influence for the sponsor’s values is nothing new: Imperial Britain’s Rhodes scholarships and America’s Fulbright program did just that. The difference perhaps is that the Anglo-American scholarships were offered as the donors were at the peak of their global power. Most economists expect China to overtake the US as the world’s major economy by about 2030 and keep on steaming ahead.

In less-than-globally-important Austria, the fall-out is, at present, limited. The economic benefits for our Republic of being at the end of a transcontinental freight road are clear – analogous to OMV’s terminal function for Russian gas, which it then distributes across Europe.  And there is even a current railroad tiff with a Chinese component: The Westbahn, a private competitor to the state-owned ÖBB on the busy Vienna-Salzburg route, is planning to sell off its rolling stock to its rival. OK, just business as usual…

But a report in Vienna’s usually reliable daily Kurier burst like a bomb in the cosy little world of our national railroads and their favorite European suppliers: The Westbahn intends to buy new customized railcars from the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation.

Is this iron horse, in reality, a Trojan?

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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