It has been praised as the next step in globalization. It has been hailed as the beginning of a better economic era. It has been vaunted as China’s commitment to global free markets. But considering China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formerly known as One Belt, One Road), only from a commercial perspective misses the point. The BRI is about politics – the politics of Chinese hegemony.
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In 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping proposed the establishment of a modern equivalent of the ancient Silk Road, creating a network of railways, roads, pipelines, and utility grids that would link China with many parts of Asia, Europe and East Africa. This project, the BRI, comprises more than physical connections. It aims to create the world’s largest platform for economic cooperation, including policy coordination as well as collaboration on trade and financing, not to mention social and cultural cooperation.
China’s State Council authorized an action plan for the BRI in 2015 with two main components: The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The Silk Road Economic Belt is slated to include six corridors: the New Eurasian Land Bridge, running from western China to western Russia; the China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor, running from northern China to eastern Russia; the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor, running from western China to Turkey; the China-Indochina Peninsula Corridor, running from southern China to Singapore; the Bangladesh-China-Myanmar Corridor, running from southern China to Myanmar; and the China-Pakistan Corridor, running from southwestern China to Pakistan. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is planned to create connections among regional waterways from China’s east and south coast to the Indian Ocean to Africa and through the Strait of Hormuz to the Mediterranean.
The project includes countries which combined account for about 65 percent of the world’s population
More than 60 countries, with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $21 trillion, have expressed interest in participating in the BRI. The project includes countries which combined account for about 65 percent of the world’s population, about one-third of the world’s GDP, and about a quarter of all the goods and services the world moves. Several institutions were created to finance the initiative: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has $100 billion, between a third and a half of which China will provide. The Silk Road Fund, with around $40 billion in capital for investment, was also created. Then there is the New Development Bank which got $100 billion in investment capital.
However, the economics of the project is just a diversion. To see the BRI’s political dimension, it is helpful to look at its official launch ceremony on May 14, 2017. For example, for each flag of a participating BRI country, one Chinese flag was officially hoisted. The message: China is not only a partner to these countries, but the leader among them. Another example is that there was only one keynote speech: President Xi’s. Of course, there were all sorts of addresses and toasts, but the ritual put the Chinese speech at the center of the event.
President Xi held a telling keynote stating: “Over 2,000 years ago, our ancestors, trekking across vast steppes and deserts, opened the transcontinental passage connecting Asia, Europe and Africa, known today as the Silk Road. … In China’s Han Dynasty around 140 B.C., Zhang Qian, a royal emissary, left Chang’an [today’s Xi’an], capital of the Han Dynasty. He traveled westward on a mission of peace and opened an overland route linking the East and the West, a daring undertaking which came to be known as Zhang Qian’s journey to the Western regions.”
What might be perceived by others as mere historical reminiscence is very important in a Chinese context, where ritual and cultural continuity play a prominent role. President Xi was referring to the beginning of the Chinese Empire as it was built by the Qin and completed by the Han Dynasties in Chang’an. Their foreign policy went back to Han Fei, a philosopher that claimed: “If people attend to public duties and sell their produce to foreigners, then the state will become rich. If the state is rich, then the army will become strong. In consequence, hegemony will be attained.” His aim was hegemony through commerce and the military.
Circles of power
It was during the Han Dynasty that an additional doctrine with Confucian roots was developed. The entire geographical earth below the skies was called “tianxia,” and in the center of that landmass is the Han Empire and its ruler. The idea of the “Middle Kingdom,” “Zhongguo” (the Chinese word for China), is not only a geographical description, but a mission for civilization. From this center, China is called by nature to make the remainder of the tianxia a civilized place. When President Xi hearkens back to these doctrines, the concepts he uses are loaded with all of this meaning.
China under the Han Dynasty conceived its foreign policy as a set of concentric circles of power. The innermost point was the Emperor with his court in Chang’an. The first circle consisted of those peoples and territories directly ruled by him. Examples of this group would be the people of Han and the states of Qin or Lu (today’s mainland China). The second circle was formed by those peoples and countries that were autonomous, but whose political decisions required the emperor’s approval. The best example for this group is Tibet, and later the peoples of Hui and Miao. Finally, the third circle was composed of all tributaries. For the Han, this was especially what is known today as Central Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia and Korea; later the concept of tributary would be expanded to Japan and Africa.
The BRI inherently serves China’s economic interests
This set of ideas – hegemony, “tianxia,” “Zhongguo” and the circles of power – remained the main tenets of China’s foreign policy for centuries. For example, as King George III sent his emissaries to China in 1792, Emperor Qianlong requested that they kowtow before him and considered it a favor to the faraway ruler to include Great Britain and Ireland in the circle of tributary states. Qianlong would regard the rest of Europe as not worthy of such an honor. A more up-to-date example is China’s claim over the South China Sea, which Beijing considers part of the first circle, that is, under its direct rule.
The BRI inherently serves China’s economic interests. With its GDP growth slowing, China is producing more steel, cement and machinery than it needs. It is therefore looking to the rest of the world, particularly developing countries, as new markets. Also, China does not want to use its surplus of money to buy American debt anymore. Finally, China is not particularly unhappy with Han Chinese migrating abroad. This all comes together in the BRI as a tool for increasing China’s influence. From this vantage point, even financially dubious projects in corruption-ridden countries like Pakistan and Kenya make sense for military and diplomatic reasons.
It is not by chance or whim that President Xi mentioned the early days of the Han Dynasty when inaugurating the BRI. In its careful state symbolism, China is emphasizing its intent to become a hegemonic power, at least throughout Asia once again. It is from this perspective that the BRI should be assessed. Naturally, it is also about business. It opens channels for cooperation and profits on many sides. After all, Chinese hegemony was never about destruction, but about civilization, which entails some sort of win-win. But with the BRI, business is a means to a greater end.
The United States and many of its major European and Asian allies have taken a cautious approach to the BRI
The Chinese have not hidden their intentions. For this reason, the United States and many of its major European and Asian allies have taken a cautious approach to the BRI. Some, like Australia, have rebuffed Beijing’s requests to sign up for the plan. India is uneasy because Chinese-built roads will run through the disputed territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and to Bangladesh and Myanmar, countries India considers within its sphere of influence. Also, India and some Arab countries are especially preoccupied with the dual-use maritime infrastructure being built by, financed by and manned by China in the Indian Ocean.
China’s business is hegemony – with a friendly face, as can be seen by President Xi’s telling invitation:
“The Belt and Road Initiative is rooted in the ancient Silk Road. It focuses on the Asian, European and African continents, but is also open to all other countries. All countries, from either Asia, Europe, Africa or the Americas, can be international cooperation partners of the Belt and Road Initiative. The pursuit of this initiative is based on extensive consultation and its benefits will be shared by us all.”