The Cement Road (without Silk)

[by Antonio Tricarico]

A lot has been said in the last two weeks about the Italian participation in the Chinese project to promote the New Silk Road, better known internationally as the Belt and Road Initiative. A pharaonic plan of roads, railways, logistics hubs (the road) and motorways of the sea with ports and their land connections (the belt) that would connect Asia and Europe, but also the Middle East and Africa, in order to boost trade and investment between the two blocks.

Today President Xi Jinping, the new helmsman of China in the 21st century, is in Rome to sign a controversial Memorandum of Understanding with the Italian government: an important and unprecedented political act in Italy-China relations.

Until now, all the attention has been focused on the geopolitical significance of this decision by the Italian government and on the implications at European level, as well as for the global competition between the U.S. and China on European soil. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, like a new Marco Polo, has reassured that the economic impact of the new cooperation will only be positive, alluding to the fairy tale of exporting quality Italian products to the new rich in Asia. Leaving aside the usual government brawl between Lega and Five Star Movement on which foreign and economic policy to promote, it would instead be appropriate to speak openly about the socio-economic implications of the Chinese mega-plan for Italy and the entire planet, an aspect that especially the Five Star Movement neglects. Or does not want to see.

In the aftermath of the financial and economic crises that hit the West ten years ago, China tried to refocus its economic growth on the development of its internal market, in order to improve global imbalances and be less vulnerable to external shocks. But this effort has not paid off in full and the country continues to produce in excess of domestic demand. Hence the need to export in a powerful way. It follows that in order to sustain high growth, such trade must be speeded up. The trade crisis with the U.S. has posed new challenges, hence the urgent need to accelerate with the plan that has now become the flag of the Xi presidency. An internal and external transformation of China, which thus reappears on the international scene in an assertive manner. A turning point comparable in its scale to the upheavals produced by the cultural revolution of Mao.

The Belt and Road Initiative is the most systemic example of a vision that has no parents in China alone. That is, the creation of a “globalization 2.0”, which accelerates the first season of the world liberalization of trade that began in the ‘70s. The objective is to rewrite the geography of the planet by concentrating the extraction of resources in those few strategic places not yet fully exploited, building mega-corridors that allow the transit of resources, energy, goods and have mega-stations that function as hubs for the industrial transformation of raw materials into products for an equally small number of mega-consumption centers in the West and emerging countries, within which a large part of the world’s population will agglomerate.

The mega-corridors, hubs, ports, and new megalopolises (so-called Smart Cities) will have ad-hoc regulations, outside of national legislation, i.e. they will be free zones or special economic zones. A study by Goldman Sachs, with the “modest” title “Building the world”, already in 2008 advocated the new imperative of Chinese-driven turbo-globalization with products “made in the world” outside any existing jurisdiction.

It is the myth of the global “just in time”: I buy the new smartphone online, the order arrives immediately in the mines and factories, the phone is assembled in a short time, leaves and quickly arrives at home (at full speed they aim to go down to 7 days from the order in China to delivery in Europe).

Global finance – also without a national flag – immediately showed interest in this planetary Marshall plan to save the dying neo-liberal globalization, and proposed schemes of “mega public-private partnerships” for the realization and especially the financing of bouquets of mega infrastructure projects assembled together to create new financial assets to be sold to institutional investors around the world. Even the latter are in crisis of accumulation, like the Chinese economy, and thirsty for new profitable investments in the face of a global economy that slows down.

More than Silk Roads, we should talk about Cement Roads to which the whole commercial system will adapt: mega container ships of several times the current size will be used and exaggerated trains that will have to cross borders with few controls but with a security infrastructure that traces each wagon as the system of air traffic control does at international level. And where there are risks and conflicts, militarization will be the main way to defend the continuous flow of goods through the mega-corridors. The world will eventually be clearly divided between those who will be organic to the mega-corridors – including masses of exploited workers in Asia and the West – and those who will be left to themselves out of the big game, if they will not have the misfortune to live on mineral reserves or where a mega-corridor will pass.

In short, the TAV in Val Susa or the TAP in Salento are games for children in comparison to this apocalyptic plan that has already set in motion in Asia. Not to mention the climate impact of this cement spill on the globe and the exponential increase in trade that would follow. The decision of the Italian government should therefore not be read as a favor or a concession made to China – bad or good – in a geopolitical key, but as a decision to marry in full the turbo-globalization that will come and produce a new global apartheid. For those who took the streets and contested the globalization project in the 1990s, the time has come to raise their voices again and organize themselves, claiming the true “anti-globalization” internationalist thinking against the contradictory sovereign and hyper-liberalist drifts. Before it’s too late.

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