文｜罗建波 中央党校国际战略研究院中国外交研究室主任 教授
Belt and Road Initiative: Where does it lead?
By Luo Jianbo, Professor, Director, Research Office for China’s Foreign Affairs, Institute for International Strategic Studies, Party School of CPC Central Committee; Translated by Xu Qinduo
Not long ago I was with a Chinese delegation to Greece, the United Kingdom and Ethiopia. Therefore, I have personally felt the importance these countries attach to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Greece pays attention to its port cooperation with China and the construction of the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Line. The UK emphasizes cooperation with China in the financial sector as well as the exploration of human resources. Ethiopia is eager to learn from the Chinese experience in investment and development, with a hope that the China Opportunity could accelerate its process of industrialization and modernization. Since BRI came into being four years ago, it has turned from an idea into action, a vision into reality, drawing more and more worldwide attention with a growing list of outcomes. BRI has, as a matter of fact, become a top highlight of Chinese foreign policy.
But there’s still pretty much misunderstanding about BRI in the international community. Some Western countries view BRI as a geopolitical tool to expand China’s influence in Eurasia or even around the world, and the implementation of BRI will therefore challenge the existing global order. At the same time, some developing countries are full of expectation of BRI, hoping that China will bring them more development aid. So what on earth is Belt and Road Initiative about? What kind of development opportunities it will create to the world? As Chinese scholars, we shoulder the responsibility to tell the “China story”, to properly explain BRI to the world. For a better understanding, the following three points are critical:
Firstly, BRI is not a geopolitical tool of China.
I attended the seventh meeting of ruling parties between China and Japan in December in China’s Fujian Province. The Japanese delegation included some local government officials as well as representatives from the business and banking sectors. They demonstrated keen interests in BRI, hoping to join the Chinese side during the enforcement of the Initiative. At the same time, they expressed the hope that the Chinese side can further clarify some related issues about BRI, such as its background, ultimate goal and the potential opportunities that may be shared with other countries.
The background and the fundamental goal of BRI is, by dint of opening China to its west, to transform western China, the peripheral areas of the country’s opening up, into the frontline of a new round of opening up. Through integrating with the big market connecting Asia, Europe and Africa, China will hopefully achieve a balanced economic growth between the more developed coastal regions in the east and the less developed inland areas in the west. Just imagine, with a complete cycle of inviting overseas investment into China followed by outbound investment from China, BRI, while elevating the opening to the east to a higher level, will definitely quicken the pace of the country’s opening to the west. Thus, the hope is a new round of opening up will be initiated, which will be more balanced and more inclusive with a closer interaction between China and the world. By BRI, China can also move upward the global value chain and upgrade the transformation of industrial structures. In other word, BRI is the new strategy of opening up in the new era of China’s development. Undoubtedly, BRI will facilitate the economic growth of China and boost China’s global influence. But its essence has nothing to do with traditional zero-sum geopolitics.
BRI is initiated and advocated by China, and naturally China is actively promoting the idea, leaving a certain degree of Chinese footprint. There’s no deny about that from the Chinese side at all. We need to explain to the international community the principle of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration and the spirit of openness, inclusiveness, cooperation and win-win. BRI welcomes the support and participation of all countries around the world, and in order to be successful, it needs to cooperate and be aligned with development strategies of other countries. BRI is not a geopolitical tool of China, nor is its purpose to establish an exclusive interest group. On the contrary, BRI aims to establish a new platform for win-win cooperation and forge a brand new partnership of global development. Looking forward, the smooth implementation of BRI will benefit the economic development of countries which sign up to it and will prompt them to seek a common security, manage their differences and disputes for the sake of a joint development. Long term, by means of “soft connectivity” between different peoples and cultures, BRI will advance the exchanges and mutual learning among different civilizations in Asia, Europe, Africa and other regions, increase the understanding and strengthen the trust between countries and peoples, so as to contribute to the common development and prosperity of the global civilization. BRI was born in China, but it belongs to the entire world.
By nature, BRI follows a philosophy different from that of chess in Western countries. The spirit of BRI is not about countering your opponent, or eradicating it; the subtlety of BRI lies in the Chinese philosophy of “going with the flow” and “swimming with the current”. The Chinese sense the tide of history and trend of today’s world. By following the direction of the times, they take the initiative to shape and lead such a trend and tide. The move is meant to create an environment of peace, openness, cooperation and win-win, and explore further the space for common development, enlarge the common interests, share the bonus of growth and increase strategic consensus. BRI draws from the idea of co-existence – the Chinese philosophy of the game of GO (Wei-Chi), and finally transcends that idea by not focusing on winners or losers, but achieving win-win for all parties. Fundamentally, BRI reflects the goal of the Chinese to build a community of shared future for mankind, the spirit advocated by the Chinese of mutual respect, cooperation and win-win, fairness and justice. BRI follows and even leads the world’s mega trend, and that’s why it’s so attractive.
Secondly, BRI doesn’t challenge the existing international order.
There’s concern in the international community whether China will reinvent the wheel to establish a new order above the existing global order. China has enjoyed rapid development and demonstrated full confidence in its own path, system, theories and culture. Some people in the West have intuitively expressed some worries and fears that China’s rise will present a challenge to the current international system and a stronger China will re-write the current global order. The US National Security Strategy Report in 2017 describes China and Russia as “revisionist powers”, saying that the two countries are attempting to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests” by relying technology, propaganda and other coercive means. Similarly, countries in the West are also full of doubts and worries over China’s BRI.
There’s a consensus inside China that China benefits from the existing international order, which is actually the background of China’s tremendous achievement in its reform and opening up policy. We Chinese are aware that the current global system was established by Western countries under the leadership of the United States at the end of the Second World War, which naturally reflects the ideas and values of West and safeguards their interests and powers. China also understands that the current global system has, to a large extent, maintained peace and stability around the world. The UN Charter in particular provides fundamental rules and mechanisms for different countries to conduct their relationships. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund help keep a stable international financial order. The World Trade Organization sets the basic framework for global trade. As a responsible major power, China truly needs to maintain the stability of the current international order. As the same time, it also needs, from the angle of a non-Western country or the views of developing countries, actively promote the further development of the international order in a fair, just and reasonable manner. Looking into the future, China is expected to continue to participate in and safeguard the present international system and global order, to be a builder and reformer of the current global system by sharing the China Solution and Chinese wisdom. This is the fundamental attitude of China toward the international order.
The BRI, advocated by the Chinese, is naturally constructive to the existing international system and global order. The Chinese government has repeatedly stressed that BRI is open and inclusive instead of being exclusive and it’s “not China’s solo, but a symphony performed by all relevant countries.” The construction of BRI is not to replace the current cooperation mechanism and initiatives, but further promote the countries along the Belt and Road to link their development strategies to achieve a complementarity of advantages. BRI is not to reinvent the wheel outside the existing global order. It is not meant to sabotage the current global order and build a new one. BRI helps to innovate, supplement and perfect the current system. Against a background of the Trump Administration in the United States, which practices mercantilism and trade protectionism, the effort by the Chinese side construct Belt and Road has actually contributed to economic globalization, offering many positive factors to today’s world of uncertainty. By BRI, China has effectively declared that it continues to follow the opening strategy based on mutual benefit and win-win, participate in and advance the process of globalization, and work together with the rest of the world to reinforce global governance to build a better world.
Thirdly, BRI is not meant to be foreign aid.
Since the 1950s, China has provided assistance to many developing countries to support them to gain national independence and social and economic development. In particular, China helped Africa build the Tanzania-Zambia Railway with a length of 1860 kilometers while China itself was rather weak, a story praised far and wide. Compared with other developing countries, China has been at forefront in economic growth and naturally provides more assistance to those relatively under-developed countries. It is the expectation of many developing nations to have more aid from China, which is actually also a necessary step for China to improve its international image and burnish its global reputation. President Xi Jinping has in recent years noted that China will uphold justice and pursue shared interests in promoting the unity and cooperation with Africa and other developing countries. Politically, China has stood out speaking for developing countries on multiple international occasions. Economically, it has worked to ensure mutual benefit and win-win so as to achieve joint development by placing emphasis on credibility, friendship, justice and morality. The increasing development aid is a case in point about China shouldering responsibility as a major world power.
However, BRI is not about foreign assistance. The main idea of the BRI is about policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bond. The goal of such an initiative is to promote the free flow of economic elements of BRI countries, make their respective advantages complementary to each other and deepen the market integration, so the countries along the BRI can achieve alignment of their development strategies and mutual-beneficial cooperation. The essence of BRI is about two-way mutual cooperation instead of one-way export or offer, so it mostly exhibits itself in the form of trade and investment, not pure foreign aid. Many developing countries suffer from shortage of capital and hindrance in financing, therefore, foreign aid still plays an important role in BRI construction. Despite that, the cooperation China has with other developing countries has expanded into such areas as trade, investment, project contracting, scientific and technological cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. Take China-Africa cooperation as an example, China has been the largest trading partner of Africa for 9 years in a row since 2009, and Africa has become the third largest overseas market for Chinese investment and the second largest overseas market for contracted projects. Currently the trade volume between China and Africa has reached 200 billion US dollars a year and the overall Chinese investment in Africa in terms of stock has surpassed 100 billion US dollars. China-Africa cooperation is being upgraded from general trade to cooperation in industrial production, from project contracting to investment, from assistance-oriented relationship to independent economic growth. While encouraging outbound investment, China will better help African countries achieve sustainable growth.
Many in developing countries have realized that, what their countries urgently need is not foreign aid, but foreign investment and related technologies and related skills. Zambian scholar Dambisa Moyo once heaped vehement criticisms on Western aid to Africa in her book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. She says that the aid from developed countries has not only brought about the Dutch Disease, but also led to the inertia of African leaders and their reliance on aid. She points out in her book that the Chinese are “our friends”, noting that the investment, technologies, experiences from China are the hope for Africa to lift itself out of the poverty trap.
What’s especially noticeable, China-Africa cooperation in industrial production transfer and infrastructure construction will effectively integrate the Chinese technologies, capital, management and the market need, labor and resources in Africa. That integration will advance in an overall manner the industrialization and agricultural modernization in Africa, breaking the three “bottlenecks” of Africa’s development: poor infrastructure, lack of talents and shortage of capital. Over the past 10 years, largely thanks to its cooperation with China, Africa has remarkably become a “Hopeful Continent” from the previously well-known “Hopeless Continent” forgotten by the rest of the world. China’s growing investments and the ever-strengthening China-Africa relationship is creating new development opportunities for African economies and help Africa integrate into the global economy at better terms.