When speaking of infrastructure projects, it is important to not only take into consideration their technical and economic dimensions, but to also pay attention to their historical premises and social significance. It is especially important to apply this approach while analysing international infrastructure projects because, by default, their scope transcends civilisational borders, and as such, the benefits they bring or the harm they cause can have profound impact on the landscape of humanity on a truly global scale. For this reason, any such project must be carefully analysed from the perspectives of both cultural ecology and historical development, as only in this way can their potential contribution to the progress of humanity, or their potential damage, be estimated.
One of the most important international infrastructure projects of our time is the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy, proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. Although its real scope and targets remain unclear, it is obvious that by 2016 it had already outgrown the purely economic and infrastructure development goals declared initially, and had become an ambitious global plan for promoting China’s development model. In the eyes of Chinese strategists, it enables China to build a platform for the harmonious co-existence of independent yet interdependent civilisations, fostered by shared economic interests and common attitudes to paths of development. The ideas and the principles embodied in this new pragmatic approach to the dialogue of equals is worth careful investigation, and this paper attempts to shed light on the historical and civilisational premises, as well as the explicit and implicit goals, of China’s new global initiative.
In the case that interpretations of the meanings and intentions of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy are based only on official pamphlets prepared in China for an international audience, however, some important underlying motives behind the Chinese strategy’s launch, and of its real driving forces, can be easily overlooked. In order to avoid this and at the same time to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the topic, this paper analyses some influential Chinese publications related to ‘One Belt, One Road’, which were intended specifically for a Chinese audience. It is believed that this can contribute to deeper understanding of the meaning of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy and the reasons for its launch.
- It is important to understand that ‘One Belt, One Road’ is not only an economic or infrastructure initiative. In reality, it also has many features of a long-term foreign-policy strategy, the scope of which goes beyond purely economic development goals.
- It is equally important to understand that if ‘One Belt, One Road’ proves to be successful globally, the existing Western monopoly on economic development recipes may be coming to an end, as in this case, there will then exist an alternative model that many countries across the globe will be willing to embrace.
- In this situation, Western countries will have to face much stronger opposition to imposition of their specific values on the recipients of economic aid. As such, they may have to adjust their current value-based approach in world politics in order to be able to compete with the largely interest-based approach characteristic of China.
- China will play a much bigger role in globalisation and any attempts to block its efforts will prove counter-productive because it has the resources, the vision, and the political will to promote its own understanding of global rules and its own version of ‘universal’ values.
- New Approach: China’s View of China’s Policy
This paper attempts to present China’s new global strategy, popularly known as the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative (or simply, OBOR) in the same fashion as Chinese experts do for domestic audiences. I believe that this approach will contribute to a better understanding of the origins of China’s OBOR strategy, its internal drivers, and its external goals. This, in turn, will help to avoid misinterpretations that can be caused by relying exclusively on pamphlets that have been prepared specifically for international audiences. One should admit, however, that any attempt to present the entire spectrum of ‘One Belt, One Road’ ideas and opinions that circulate in China within a single report would be impossible. As such, careful selection of the most representative, yet most influential publications on this issue becomes truly crucial. Keeping this in mind, this paper tries to stick to only the most frequently quoted books and articles that have been recently published in China, yet at the same time does its best to keep the balance between popularity and variety. For this reason, I have picked up not only the most widely cited texts related to OBOR, but made a humble attempt to supplement them with some distinctively original, yet somewhat less celebrated reports prepared by geographers and historians. Unlike political scientists or economists, these researchers do not directly influence the decision-making process, yet their views and insights sometimes provide better clues towards understanding the hidden motifs that shape the minds of those responsible for working out and implementing political and economic strategies. At the same time, I have kept the balance between experts affiliated with research centres closely connected to the Chinese government (who, for this reason, are directly responsible for formulating and implementing national strategy), other experts representing China’s most influential think tanks, and research from the country’s leading universities. I realise that any such selection presents only a limited picture of the entire discussion currently taking place in China. Nevertheless, I believe the approach described above is helpful in clarifying other fragmentary insights into the hearts and minds of those behind the scenes of what is rightly called the greatest international project in China’s modern history.
- The Essence: Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World
Chairman Xi first proposed his idea of reviving the ancient Silk Road as early as 2013, but it was only in 2015 that its fully approved official blueprint, Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, was presented to an international audience (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Commerce, 2015). In other words, it took leading Chinese experts almost two years to conceptualise their leader’s insights, turn them into an official document describing the grand project’s general framework, propose concrete steps for its implementation, and clarify its explicit targets. This document gives the impression that within the first two years of internal discussion, Xi’s initially economic and infrastructure initiative outgrew its status as a project to become a de-facto national strategy. As Xue Li, one of the leading experts from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of World Economics and Politics, put it in his article, “Why should we still call something that in reality is a long-term strategy, an ‘initiative’?” (2015b). Although, while speaking with foreigners, Chinese experts prefer using the word ‘initiative’ instead of ‘strategy’, they seem to do it while trying to avoid unnecessary connotations, and in order not to cause anxiety by way of the seriousness they attach to it. However, one should remain aware that in reality OBOR is currently being designed in a way that will allow it to become an external manifestation of China’s internal national strategy.
The milder rhetoric applied for the international audience is sometimes seen as being purposely misleading, while in reality it just reflects the traditional courtesy with which the Chinese normally treat outsiders, whom should in no way be offended or ‘lose face’, and because of this, blatant criticism of an opponent, ‘straight to his face’, is avoided in China. This explains, why, while speaking with foreigners of the historical premises for their new strategy’s emergence, for instance, Chinese experts seldom insist that Western-led globalisation, which used to be an effective development model, is now gradually losing its moral authority. At the same time, while speaking to domestic audiences they often say that it is due to the loss of moral superiority that the globalisation model can no longer impose itself on the rest of the world. They believe it has ceased to be considered the only possible future for humanity (Luo, 2016). In their opinion, the global financial crisis of 2008 made it obvious that the West is not in a position to lead and shape global economic development any more, while its more recent failures to solve a variety of deteriorating crises have further proved its inability to keep the world’s political uncertainness under control. In other words, the need to reform the initially Western-led global economic system has recently been amplified by the obvious necessity to reshape the global political system too.
It is important to note in this regard that most Chinese experts never challenge globalisation itself. However, they have come to believe that its mechanisms, and the roles of its leading actors, should now be reconsidered so as to more accurately reflect the emerging reality and changing balance of power in global politics and economics. To their understanding, it is precisely this mission that OBOR is destined to accomplish. To put it in a slightly different way, the tremendous success of China’s internal development strategy and the recent rise of its international profile have given it a right to lead in imminent reform of the slowly deteriorating international political and economic systems, previously based on the idea of Western moral superiority. The OBOR strategy, under these circumstances, is naturally seen as a roadmap for global transformation predetermined by the logic of history itself (Lu et al., 2016).
The need for adjustment to the current global economic model and global political system, seen alongside the growing ability of modern China to lead in reform, are generally viewed as historical premises for the launch of the OBOR strategy. Meanwhile, its imminent success in the eyes of Chinese scholars ought to prove the new status of their country as an emerging global power, ready to take its share of responsibility for the well-being of the entire developing world. As some of them point out in this regard, the West has long requested China to assume such a burden (Xu and Xue, 2015). They add, however, that any such power shift would also mean that China must be treated as the world’s new superpower, and the de-facto leader of the developing world. It is in achieving this status that they see the real purpose behind the launch of the OBOR national strategy.
- Joint Economic Development as a New Ideology
When speaking about the exact recipe that China is offering to the developing world in order to save it from the ongoing crisis of globalisation, Chinese experts usually mention China’s own brand of economic development, which, they sincerely believe, can bring the global population everything it really needs. That is, a well-off society, or to refer to it more precisely, a safe, prosperous life for all, with social justice guaranteed by a strong and stable state. The existence of such a state, they explain, is the natural outcome of a persistently followed general policy of building ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Socialism of this kind, they apparently believe, will ultimately replace, or at least supplement, the current neo-liberal capitalist model on a global scale. To prove their point, Chinese experts refer to well-known statistical facts that illustrate the effectiveness of the development model adopted in their country. In fact, their arguments do sound convincing, and many developing countries across the world are impressed, both with China’s economic growth figures, and to no lesser degree, with its methods of reaching political stability, which some less fortunate countries can only dream about.
As such, it is fundamentally in sharing with the developing world the recipe for reaching economic and political consensus that Chinese experts see their mission, and it is this very message that is reflected in OBOR’s most important slogans. One can therefore assume that despite its explicit economic image, the real essence of the OBOR strategy is a new ideology of non-political development that has been disguised as a pragmatic business project. In fact, this rather paradoxical conclusion should not come as a surprise, as it has been economic development, the elevated status of which has almost become sacred in China, that now plays the role of the dominant ideology, and that effectively legitimises the domestic political system.
Chinese experts insist that any successful implementation of the OBOR strategy implies active involvement on all sides, and describe the idea as “jointly working on creating a common brighter future”. At the same time, there is a Chinese readiness to invest financial resources into any such joint project and to provide technical support. Throughout official OBOR-related documents this principle of inclusive development is often called “wide consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits” (Chairman Xi Jinping, 2015). This clearly pronounced equality with partners, and the willingness to offer rather than to impose their model give Chinese experts the sense of a right to insist that their initiative shall not be treated as yet another hegemon-style aid project, as has been the case with most Western development aid programs. At the same time, they sometimes fear that international partners might misinterpret the idea of joint development or may be unable to appreciate the benefits of the fair co-operation model on offer, due to certain particularities of mentality or because of the century-long misunderstandings that still poison relations between China and many of its neighbours.
Chinese experts also realise that OBOR will face competition from various international co-operation and integration projects. This does not scare them away, however, as they see OBOR as a supplement to these different projects and not as a direct rival. For proponents of the Chinese development model, competition is never a zero-sum confrontation, and they tend to encourage their partners to participate in alternative integration projects rather than force them to choose one way over another. They also feel quite happy if partner countries propose their own development plans and try to find ways to co-ordinate those plans with OBOR goals in search of resulting synergies. They see China’s true attraction not in winning over and against all other integration projects, but rather in luring them onto the platform that China is willing to provide. From this point of view, the majority of Chinese experts see neither the American-proposed TPP, nor the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, as potential threats to core Chinese interests in Eurasia.
As far as detailed methods of implementing the OBOR strategy are concerned, most Chinese experts emphasise the importance of global transportation and financial infrastructure for ultimate success. This is not surprising. Indeed, it has been nothing but advanced infrastructure that has guaranteed China’s own impressive growth. From this point of view, they see the recent creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Foundation as important evidence of their country’s commitment to fostering joint development across Eurasia. In fact, elaborating on trans-continental transportation and infrastructure corridors is becoming a popular trend within the expert community in China. Indeed, those imagined axes of development, radiating outwards from within China, are believed to be the backbone of OBOR that will see all other development projects closely tied to its solid grid in later years.
While most experts feel positive about the Chinese state’s continued commitment to opening up foreign markets via infrastructure and transportation corridors, they also express concern in regard to individual entrepreneurs, both private and public, who are supposed to assume the actual task of exporting the Chinese development model. In fact, it is their success or failure that will determine the real outcome of the entire OBOR strategy. While the internationalisation of Chinese businesses is actively encouraged by the state, the effectiveness of this process raises serious doubts. Some experts feel uncertain as to whether or not Chinese companies are knowledgeable and sensitive enough to conduct business outside of their own cultural milieu, while others are afraid that with Chinese domestic markets still growing, local entrepreneurs will not feel motivated to move their businesses out of the country. All of these considerations provide grounds for potential change, so one may expect that as the OBOR strategy evolves, its implementation will witness more participation from the central government, because letting individual businessmen take full control of national strategy seems too risky an adventure.
- The Ultimate Goal: A Community of Common Destiny
In spite of the obvious fact that economics is both the essence, and an important instrument of, the entire OBOR strategy, one can hardly find any purely economic goals or clear economic criteria set out for implementation in the ‘Vision and Actions’ document, or in any other primary Chinese sources. Moreover, even experts whose job titles imply direct involvement in economic planning seem indifferent when it comes to the return on investment from OBOR. Sometimes they speak about economic effectiveness as a desirable, but hardly achievable future; sometimes they outright forget to mention it. Instead, they insist the strategic interest of exporting the development model should be given priority over any purely utilitarian commercial goals (Xue, 2015a).
The reason for this indifference can be explained by the fact that for the majority of Chinese experts, true economic interest does not currently imply expanding into international markets, but rather means growing domestic markets through a symbolic swallowing of international markets, and incorporating them into the Chinese sphere of influence. According to this logic, all nation-states accepting the Chinese development model as their own would in this way be agreeing to follow new rules for globalisation, set by China, and for this reason could be rightfully considered domesticated and no longer treated as external. This process of incorporation of neighbouring economies through the acceptance of a development model is normally referred to as “building of a community of common destiny” (Yu, 2016).
In the minds of Chinese policy experts, this community shall by no means be limited to economic co-operation, as it will also imply the geopolitical and socio-cultural unity of all the countries involved, the hearts of their citizens being linked together with the help of common values. It is hard to tell exactly what kind of values would serve as the basis for such cultural interconnection, but intensive elaboration on this issue is ongoing. It is interesting to note that this work has become possible only thanks to the common economic platform already provided by China to its neighbours. In other words, China aims to tie its neighbours to itself firstly through win-win economic co-operation, and only later through the web of cultural links that effectively build upon common economic interests. In this way, it is possible to speak about a community of common destiny, and it does seem this is something China truly seeks to achieve through implementation of its OBOR strategy.
To sum up, one can say that, while relying on the might of its growing economy, the entrepreneurial spirit of its business people, and the attractiveness of its adjustable and scalable development model, China is now ready to offer the developing world a new kind of unity based on the new rules for political and economic globalisation it is currently seeking to set. In the course of this process, China will play the role of an invisible leader of this newly created alliance, being confident in its moral right and even its moral obligation to repair the deteriorating global order. While such an alliance is often seen as being built upon an ideology-free paradigm of economic development, its fruits are supposed to include a set of common interests and common values. A name for this set of standards has not yet been coined, but its vision has been rather intuitively summarised by one of the lesser-known Chinese experts as “‘One Belt, One Road’ leads the world into a Eurasian century” (Hu, 2015).
History has indeed provided China with a chance to regain global leadership, and the country now looks determined enough to build its own version of a brave new world that will operate according to a completely different set of rules. The first draft of these new rules was presented in Visions and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (2015), but their fine-tuning and subsequent adaptation to practical needs will undoubtedly continue. There is no doubt that it will be accompanied by the almost sacramental “wide consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits” that I consider the true essence of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ dream, made in China, but at the same time made for the world.
Center for Asia-Pacific Studies, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences
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