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The Belt and Highway Initiative and the Way forward for Globalization – The Diplomat

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The Belt and Highway Initiative and the Way forward for Globalization – The Diplomat

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The inclusion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in its constitution by the Chinese Communist Party last week proves without a doubt that the concept occupies a central and important place in future Chinese foreign policy. At the same time, for those focused on the challenges China’s overseas infrastructure development is currently facing, the initiative can be seen as a risky and perhaps even exaggerated endeavor. Some analysts have argued that China will not be able to maintain high lending rates for long, and one American economist has called the program a “dud” for infrastructure investment. To square that circle, it’s important to think of Belt and Road as more than just an infrastructure program. In fact, it is arguably a roadmap for China’s transition to a new level of economic development that also gives us some insight into its prospects for the future of globalization.

Looking back at the official whitepaper “Visions and Actions” it becomes clear that BRI was always intended from the start as a comprehensive vision of Chinese politics and not just an infrastructure connectivity program. The document envisages a plan to link the developing economic development of China with that of its Eurasian neighbors, to improve people with people and cultural ties, to develop new standards of communication and energy technologies, to facilitate cross-border transactions in multiple currencies to simplify and further internationalize the use of the renminbi. With much of the world focused on infrastructure, China appears to have worked diligently on all five “pillars” of BRI: policy coordination; Connectivity of facilities; unhindered trade; financial integration; and interpersonal bonds. This is evident in the results of the Belt and Road Forum, which lack depth but not completeness. China has partnered with the European Union to work on new standards for 5G cellular communications, laying the groundwork for renminbi-denominated international financial transactions and networking in a space long held by American institutions and the US dollar was dominated.

One of the least discussed but increasingly conspicuous aspects of BRI is the focus on the interpersonal or cultural bonds and language about the global cultural meaning of BRI. The official rhetoric surrounding BRI has linked several related topics to the concept of the “Silk Road Spirit” from the start. The document “Visions and Actions” begins with a description of how the atmosphere along the old trade route was created:

[T]he Silk Road Spirit – “Peace and cooperation, openness and inclusivity, mutual learning and mutual benefit” […] The spirit of the Silk Road symbolizes communication and cooperation between East and West and is a historical and cultural heritage shared by all countries in the world.

The opening of President Xi Jinping’s keynote address at the BRI Forum in May touched on these issues almost verbatim. Government websites and state media continuously portray BRI as a positive, intercultural exchange, reminding of a time when great civilizations and religions shared their wisdom about the Silk Road. In 2014 (one year after the BRI was announced), China, together with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, successfully submitted the inclusion of the Silk Road on the UNESCO World Heritage List. China also hosts a Silk Road International Film Festival dedicated to promoting “mutual understanding” and numerous art exhibitions with titles such as “Silk Road: Reflection of Mutual Learning”.

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The official rhetoric also reliably frames the context of BRI in supposedly observable trends towards a “multipolar”, “globalized” and “culturally diversified” world that is heading towards a supposedly fairer future. These phrases are often used to more generally articulate basic principles of Chinese foreign policy. In addition, they represent an implicit criticism of an order run as hegemonic or unipolar American, in which diversity (at least of regime types) is not respected and in which mutual benefit, win-win cooperation and other sovereign principles of equality are not really accepted. In other words, the rhetoric surrounding BRI reliably hits all the tones of China’s more “pluralistic” than “liberal” vision for the future of the international order. This differentiation is also clear in other topics of conversation on the subject of BRI: It is neither the Marshall Plan, nor can it be called a strategy. For Chinese political thinkers, both concepts evoke a sense of selfish usefulness from which the PRC is constantly distancing itself – the “geopolitics” supposedly behind the liberal order led by the West. For this reason, BRI is always vaguely referred to as an “open” or “inclusive platform”. Official media guidelines require it to be referred to as an “initiative”, although in China it is sometimes referred to as a “strategy”.

If you read through enough state media or official speeches on Belt and Road, it becomes clear that a stylized history of the original Silk Road plays an important role for BRI. By constantly looking back at the history of East-West exchanges, the Chinese media seem interested in telling a story about a particular type of globalization in which China played a central and ostensibly benevolent role. In this old “Silk Road spirit” that Xi Jinping is trying to recreate, value-neutral trade – not politics – drove the networking and progress of civilization.

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If the inward-looking reality of BRI is that it is a comprehensive plan to take China’s economy to the next level of development, the outward-looking reality is a major rebranding of China as the focal point of the next level of globalization. This pluralistic, “open” and multicultural order will not have a “leader” like the current iteration of globalization, but it will certainly have a focus. The focus on “mutual learning” and the frequent reference to the growth and exchange of “civilizations” in state media on BRI is an issue worth exploring further.

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At the diplomatic and strategic level, public advocacy for BRI can help legitimize a particular view of globalization and international order. This has implications for the future nature of trade, financial connectivity, infrastructure-based development and global governance. The overall approach and rhetoric of BRI consistently seek to promote a Chinese vision of multipolar global governance, the important element of which is the rejection of democratic norms or the provision of external foundations to question state sovereignty. As one aspect of China’s persistent inability to facilitate a more market-driven economy, BRI also represents and enables a potential shift in leading economic norms. It is completely natural, of course, and expected that China’s signature foreign policy initiative will reflect its broader normative vision for world politics. However, potential partners or BRI supporters need to carefully consider the extent to which the initiative can bring about changes in environmental and social protection measures from infrastructure development to internet governance. Such an assessment must be based on existing studies of the central importance of BRI for China’s long-term economic planning and an awareness – which should stimulate further investigation – of how the initiative concretizes China’s vision for the future of globalization.

Alek Chance, PhD, is a Fellow at the Albert Del Rosario Institute in Manila and a consultant on international affairs. His main research interests are US-China relations, the international order, and the role of ideas in international politics. This article is an adaptation of the longer study “Checking in on the Belt and Road Initiative”.

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