At the first international Belt and Road (BR) Forum in Beijing in May 2017, President Xi Jinping emphasised the openness and long-term vision of China’s large-scale development initiative. The new Silk Road has the potential to instigate a tectonic shift in the global order, towards a new multilateralism. The strategic construction of ports, bridges, long-distance railway tracks, and industrial infrastructure will shift trade routes from sea to land and boost the rise of the countries along the new silk roads, especially within Asia, but also beyond. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will connect distant regions but especially immediate neighbours. China is willing to share its immense financial and industrial resources as well as its own experience of four decades of reform and opening-up, and it will be able to secure its own long-term development.
Like in Davos at the World Economic Forum earlier this year, at the BR Forum, President Xi referred to the ancient Silk Road to highlight the historical foundation of BRI and to indicate that cross-country trade is an inherent human activity. Until only recently, the Western world focused on the BRIC countries as a collective source for new markets and future growth. But this group of countries is an abstract selection of economies without significant historical connections. Comparable economic data is what these countries have in common. In contrast, the new silk roads stretch along countries that make up regions with a shared history and long-term historical connections. These are ancient connections of economic, cultural, and religious exchange. These historical connections, which were not always peaceful but were never as violent as Europe’s rise from the fifteenth century, can serve as a source of inspiration and sustainable development. China’s own gradual development has been extremely successful and could serve well as a source of inspiration and guidance.
Furthermore, BRI also has the potential to become a platform for implementing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). All Belt and Road partner countries have committed to these goals. China and another 146 countries have also ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which the US wants to quit again.
BRI is primarily an infrastructure initiative with $1 trillion worth of infrastructure investments in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Infrastructure consumes most natural resources and accounts for a large proportion of global CO2 emissions. China itself is the largest CO2 emitter globally – though its emissions are only half the size of the US’ in per capita terms – and faces severe environmental pollution within its own borders. To build a “beautiful China,” the Chinese government is committed to combatting pollution.
Following the Paris Agreement, China wants to cut its carbon intensity by 60-65 percent, which represents a major increase from previous commitments, and aims to peak greenhouse emissions by 2030. Environmental protection has also become an integral part of the new five-year plan. In 2016, China already invested more in solar energy than the United States and Europe together. During the BR Forum, President Xi emphasised the need for “a way of life and work that is green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable.” At the BR Forum, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection announced the launch of an International Coalition for Green Development on the Belt and Road.
BRI signals a departure from the old, US-dominated world order. So far, the West has largely perceived China’s tremendous soft-power approach with scepticism, but has not come up with an alternative vision or a comparable development plan. This is not the end of liberalism, but rather a new liberalism from an Asian perspective. By lifting 800 million people out of poverty, China has already contributed significantly to the fulfillment of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. BRI has all the potential to contribute greatly towards the fulfillment of the SDGs.