Xinjiang eyes opportunities under 'Belt and Road'

By Wang Cong Source:Global Times Published: 2016-6-7 21:43:01

Challenges abound as initiative moves ahead slowly

Since the launch of the "One Belt and One Road" (B&R) initiative in 2013, Xinjiang has received a great deal of attention. Both the central government and the regional government have made Xinjiang a focal point of their B&R planning, which should boost the region's economy. Consequently, Xinjiang's companies are brimming with optimism about the initiative, but challenges also remain.

The entrance of the Xinjiang Central Asia Commodity Exchange Center in Karamay, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Photo: Courtesy of Xinjiang Central Asia Commodity Exchange Center Co

Xinjiang Hualing Industry and Trade Group, an Urumqi-based company that operates commodity trade markets, started its expansion into Central Asia and eastern Europe a decade ago, but the "One Belt and One Road" (B&R) initiative could offer a fresh boost.

"The 'B&R initiative' will definitely give a boost to our company's expansion plans," Gao Jianmin, Hualing's office director, told the Global Times on Friday.

Gao said the central government's plan will make it much easier for the company to make business deals in foreign countries, and more importantly, bring new opportunities as investment is expected to pour into both Xinjiang and Central Asian countries.

Hualing is currently working on business deals in Kazakhstan and a few other countries in Central Asia, where the company is planning to build more trade markets. Gao said the deals represent examples of benefits under the "B&R initiative."

"When you look at all these areas, the market is just enormous," he said, pointing at Central Asia and East Europe on a map on his computer.

Since the introduction of the "B&R initiative" in 2013, which aims to boost cooperation with Central Asian and Southeast Asian countries in areas like trade and monetary cooperation, Northwest China's Xinjiang, with its proximity to several countries in Central Asia, has become a focal point.

Gao said under the "B&R initiative," trade ties between China and Central Asian countries will improve significantly, which could present a lot of opportunities.

"And as a Xinjiang-based company with a long history in Central Asia, we are well positioned to seize those opportunities," Gao said.

And more than just opportunities abroad, plans put forward by the Xinjiang regional government as a part of the "B&R initiative" can also offer new opportunities at home, Gao said.

Opportunities at home

The Xinjiang regional government's plan includes creating five centers, such as a regional transportation center, a trade logistics center, a financial center and a regional medical center.

To make those plans a reality,

Hualing aims to expand its logistics business in Xinjiang and build a hospital that focuses on the market in Central Asia, Gao said.

Hualing is just an example of Xinjiang's "B&R fever," which can be felt in talks with many other companies in the region.

Xinjiang Central Asia Commodity Exchange Center Co (XJCACE) has its eye on new, booming industries such as online trading and cloud computing, believing the combination of new information technologies and traditional local resources could take off soon.

The company, which operates the Central Asia Commodity Exchange Center in the oil city of Karamay in northern Xinjiang, has been focusing on online oil trading, cloud computing and smart city operating services, which the company sees as opportunities under the "B&R initiative."

"Our endeavors in these areas are aimed at supporting economic transition and upgrade in Karamay and all of Xinjiang, ultimately serving the 'B&R initiative,'" Ji Lexiang, the company's director of planning, told the Global Times on Saturday.

The company launched China's first online platform for spot trading of refined oil products in November 2015, according to Ji.

Working with PetroChina Xinjiang Marketing Co, the Central Asia Energy Network, the oil product platform, can sell refined oil products to private gas stations and other corporate clients online and provide financing options for the purchases.

Although the platform has been focused so far on the domestic market, it has great potential for expansion overseas, with supports from the central government's "B&R initiative" and local government's plan to establish a world-class oil city in Karamay, Ji said.

Not all great

Although the future seems promising under the "B&R initiative," obstacles remain and progress is slow in the implementation of the initiative. Some companies told the Global Times that they have not seen tangible benefits from the plan.

"There is no doubt that the 'B&R initiative' is the right path forward for our country and very beneficial for Xinjiang, but it's fair to say the implementation is rather slow, or at least not as great as it sounds," Ma Jie, dean of the entrepreneurship school at the Xinjiang University of Finance and Economics (XJUFE), said in an interview with the Global Times on Thursday.

"You can feel a lot of excitement among the business community here about the initiative, but a lot of these companies are not so sure about what they can specifically do," Ma said.

In interviews with the Global Times, many companies expressed optimism but became vague when asked about what they have gained as a part of the plan.

An executive at an infrastructure construction company, who requested anonymity, said the "B&R initiative" presents more projects overseas, but the competition would also increase because many large State-owned companies would also come to compete for the bids.

Challenges remain

The slow progress of implementation of the "B&R initiative" could be attributed to a lack of details about the plan and local resources, according to company executives and analysts in Xinjiang.

"The initiative is very broad; everything about opening up to the west is part of the 'B&R initiative,'" Ma said. "What it does is point to a general direction for local governments and companies."

The Xinjiang regional government's plans to build regional trade, financial, transport and other hubs are still not fully implemented, multiple local residents told the Global Times.

Limited local resources such as lackluster infrastructure and a shortage in highly educated workers could also present obstacles to the initiative, experts said.

Although there have been improvements in recent years, particularly in northern Xinjiang, where the economy is generally better than in the region's southern areas, infrastructure such as road and railways still need to be better connected, Ma said.

Xinjiang's higher education also lags behind other areas of the country, which could drag on development of the local economy, Zheng Wei, chairman of Chongqing-based Zandem Construction Group, told the Global Times on Sunday.

Zheng believes highly educated workers will be in high demand, and that's why he came to the region.

His company, which is in the real estate and education industries, is currently constructing a new campus for XJUFE's business school in Korla in central Xinjiang. It is the company's first project in the region.

Zheng said as Xinjiang's economy continues to grow and its dealings with neighboring countries increase under the "B&R initiative," education is critical, but it takes time.

Ma also said patience is needed for the implementation of the "B&R initiative."

"This is a long-term plan that requires time to implement; it is definitely not a great leap forward," he noted.

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