China's Marshall Plan

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Chinese labourers work on the Karakoram highway in Gulmit village of Hunza valley in northern Pakistan.

Photographer: Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

China's ambition to revive an ancient trading route stretching from Asia to Europe could leave an economic legacy bigger than the Marshall Plan or the European Union's enlargement, according to a new analysis.

Dubbed 'One Belt, One Road,' the plan to build rail, highways and ports will embolden China's soft power status by spreading economic prosperity during a time of heightened  political uncertainty in both the U.S. and EU, according to Stephen L. Jen, the chief executive officer at Eurizon SLJ Capital Ltd., who estimates a value of $1.4 trillion for the project. 

It will also boost trading links and help internationalize the yuan as banks open branches along the route, according to Jen.

"This is a quintessential example of a geopolitical event that will likely be consequential for the global economy and the balance of political power in the long run," said Jen, a former International Monetary Fund economist.

Reaching from east to west, the Silk Road Economic Belt will extend to Europe through Central Asia and the Maritime Silk Road will link sea lanes to Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

While China's authorities aren't calling their Silk Road a new Marshall Plan, that's not stopping comparisons with the U.S. effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.

With the potential to touch on 64 countries, 4.4 billion people and around 40 percent of the global economy, Jen estimates that the One Belt One Road project will be 12 times bigger in absolute dollar terms than the Marshall Plan. China may spend as much as 9 percent of gross domestic product -- about double the U.S.'s boost to post-war Europe in those terms.

"The One Belt One Road Project, in terms of its size, could be multiple times larger and more ambitious than the Marshall Plan or the European enlargement," said Jen.

It's not all upside. Undertaking an expansive plan like this one will inevitably run the risk of corruption, project delays and local opposition. Chinese backed projects have frequently run into trouble before, especially in Africa, and there's no guarantee that potential recipient nations will put their hand up for the aid.

In addition, resurrecting the trading route will need funding during a time of slowing growth and rising bad loans in the nation's banks. Sending money abroad when it's needed at home may not have an enduring appeal.

Still, at least China has a plan.

"The fact that this is a 30-40 year plan is remarkable as China is the only country with any long-term development plan, and this underscores the policy long-termism in China, in contrast to the dominance of policy short-termism in much of the West," said Jen.  

And that's a win-win for soft power.

"The One Belt One Road Project could be a huge PR exercise that could win over government and public support in these countries," he said.

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