The road China must travel

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Alan Ruby is a se­nior scholar at the Al­liance for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion and Democ­racy at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. Aisi Li is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at Nazarbayev Univer­sity, Kaza­khstan.

The Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive is enor­mous in its am­bi­tions to link China more ef­fi­ciently to other mar­kets and na­tions through mas­sive in­vest­ment in land and mar­itime trad­ing routes.

The land-based path­ways across Asia and Europe re­duce China’s de­pen­dence on sea trans­porta­tion for its ex­ports and for its en­ergy and min­eral im­ports. They are also aimed at deep­en­ing its re­la­tion­ships with the 60-plus na­tions along the routes in five ar­eas: in­fras­truc­ture, fi­nance, pol­icy, peo­ple-to-peo­ple ex­changes and trade.

The of­fi­cial plan refers to greater student mo­bil­ity, jointly run schools and 10,000 student schol­ar­ships.

But lit­tle has yet been in­vested in peo­pleto-peo­ple ex­changes or hu­man cap­i­tal de­vel­op­ment; most of the action has fo­cused on in­fras­truc­ture, par­tic­u­larly roads, ports and rail­ways.

One ex­cep­tion is the cre­ation of two al­liances that aim to in­crease co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Chinese uni­ver­si­ties and the 100-plus in­sti­tu­tions along the trad­ing routes. The other ex­cep­tion is the open­ing of overseas branch cam­puses by Chinese uni­ver­si­ties, such as Xi­a­men Univer­sity’s new Malaysian cam­pus.

The dom­i­nance of in­fras­truc­ture in­vest­ments par­al­lels the early years of the Mar­shall Plan in post-war Europe. US fi­nan­cial aid re­lieved food and oil short­ages, re­built au­to­mo­bile plants and hous­ing and re­vi­talised man­u­fac­tur­ing. It fa­cil­i­tated trade and fos­tered closer eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion. But to max­imise the im­pact of the new in­fras­truc­ture, the plan also funded tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance and study tours to ob­serve in­dus­trial prac­tices, and sent US engi­neers to ad­vise the emerg­ing en­ter­prises and guide tech­no­log­i­cal trans­fers.

The Mar­shall Plan was ad­min­is­tered by the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Euro­pean Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion, which spawned the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment. This pur­sued a much wider agenda of cross-bor­der col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween gov­ern­ments on prob­lems of eco­nomic and so­cial de­vel­op­ment. In the 1960s, its ac­tiv­i­ties ex­panded to in­clude ed­u­ca­tional re­search and in­no­va­tion, and it now leads a ma­jor cross­na­tional sur­vey of student per­for­mance. Its ar­chi­tects learned that com­ple­men­tary in­vest­ments in lo­cal ca­pac­ity, skills and know-how were needed to max­imise the ben­e­fits of in­fras­truc­ture projects.

The World Bank’s lend­ing pro­file fol­lowed a sim­i­lar tra­jec­tory. Cre­ated to help war-torn na­tions re­build, the main fo­cus of its first 35 years was on in­fras­truc­ture, in­clud­ing mas­sive hy­dro­elec­tric schemes and rail­ways. It made its first loan for ed­u­ca­tion in 1963, with an em­pha­sis on the vo­ca­tional.

But in the 1970s, prompted by ad­vo­cates of hu­man cap­i­tal the­ory, the bank made in­vest­ments in large projects to pro­vide pri­mary and ini­tial sec­ondary school places to mil­lions of chil­dren. The fo­cus was on con­struc­tion, but by the mid-1990s the bank sup­ported in­vest­ments in other ed­u­ca­tional ne­ces­si­ties, such as books, and paid par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to im­prov­ing the ac­cess of girls to ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion. In the late 1990s, the bank placed ed­u­ca­tion cen­trally in a Com­pre­hen­sive De­vel­op­ment Frame­work, ac­knowl­edg­ing both that lo­cal tal­ent was needed to max­imise the ben­e­fit of in­fras­truc­ture and that di­ver­si­fy­ing economies and strength­en­ing so­ci­eties de­pended on an ed­u­cated pop­u­lace and a strong ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor.

All this sug­gests that to max­imise suc­cess, the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive needs to re­cal­i­brate some of its in­vest­ment pri­or­i­ties. There is lit­tle point in up­grad­ing and au­tomat­ing a port fa­cil­ity if there is no one to deal with lo­gis­tics, in­ven­tory man­age­ment, sched­ul­ing and security. With­out skilled per­son­nel, the fa­cil­ity is un­likely to be suf­fi­ciently prof­itable to ser­vice the debt bur­den. The pru­dent bor­rower will not wish to rely on the lender for its op­er­a­tion and main­te­nance: this can cre­ate a long-term and costly de­pen­dency re­la­tion­ship, re­duc­ing the sov­er­eign na­tion’s con­trol over its essen­tial in­fras­truc­ture.

One step would be a Silk Road Re­search Fund to aug­ment the panoply of bi­lat­eral and mul­ti­lat­eral mech­a­nisms. It could fund work on shared en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial prob­lems, as well as stud­ies of the rich cul­tural and lin­guis­tic her­itage of the Silk routes, land and sea. A Belt and Road Schol­ars scheme could par­al­lel the Ful­bright Pro­gram, and some joint projects in vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion could in­crease the sup­ply of skilled tech­ni­cians. His­tor­i­cally in­formed ini­tia­tives such as this would al­low the Belt and Road ini­tia­tive to bring greater ben­e­fit more swiftly.

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