Belt and Road to Where?

by ALEXANDER GABUEV / Op-Ed/ December 08, 2017 / Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific / Posted at Carnegie

On October 24, 2017, the Communist Party of China (CPC) adopted a new version of the Party Constitution. Along with the name of Secretary General Xi Jinping, the constitution now includes the One Belt One Road (OBOR) concept — Xi’s trademark geo-economic concept that is now used to explain almost every move that China makes outside its borders. The “Belt and Road” concept has become so inflated, that it’s no longer helpful in understanding anything about China’s relationship with the outside world, but only further obscures an already complicated picture.

Beijing has promised to increase the number of Chinese soldiers in UN peacekeeping missions: this is characterised as a by-product of Belt and Road. The Chonqing’s provincial government is subsidising yet another cargo train to Europe: again, this is portrayed as a further indication of how serious and far-sighted the Chinese leadership and its Belt and Road initiative is. A Chinese private company is buying a Silicon Valley start-up: that too is now part of OBOR’s digital dimension! The embedded notion of China having a strategic culture dates back to Sun Zi and Zhuge Liang; forcing analysts to search for a Chinese strategy even when there is scarcely a hint of one. Tell-tale signs of strategy include stated goals, criteria of success, and a timeline. None of these are prominently part of the OBOR concept.

The Belt and Road initiative lacks a clearly stated goal. In his initial presentation on the idea (then called the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)) in Astana, Kazakhstan September 2013, President Xi did not set any clear goals, unless one counts: “to forge closer economic ties, deepen cooperation and expand development space in the Eurasian region” or “vigorously enhance practical cooperation and be good partners of win-win cooperation.” The same was true of Xi’s later speeches on the subject, including at the inaugural Belt and Road summit in May 2017. One could search through the policy documents issued by the National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC), but usually the actual ministry resorts to the “win-win” formulation each time it approached the question of OBOR goals.

Against this background, many analysts produce their own theories on what exactly Zhongnanhai had in mind with the Belt and Road idea. Some explanations point to geostrategic rationales. According to this school of thought, China, embattled by conflict with its neighbours in the South China Sea and contained by U.S. and its allies in Northeast Asia, looked for “strategic space” in the West and will try to establish its dominance over continental Eurasia. A more nuanced variant of this approach links OBOR to Xi Jinping’s ideas about “periphery diplomacy” through which China seeks to improve relationships with its neighbours by providing them with economic development. Yet another school of thought would frame OBOR as the Chinese version of the Bretton Woods institutions — the World Bank, IMF and the WTO — developed to shape the international economic order in accordance with Beijing’s interests and preferences (this is why initiatives like AIIB or talks on RCEP are included under the OBOR umbrella). Some scholars point to Chinese domestic economic needs, highlighting OBOR’s potential to export China’s industrial overcapacity or support infrastructure-building that will help to generate employment in the PRC. There is no shortage of scholars linking the origins of OBOR to the Hu Jintao-era project of Developing the West, particularly the west of the PRC. Finally, a popular explanation is a logistical one: China wants to tap into the potentially faster continental routes to Europe by upgrading infrastructure in Eurasia, and thereby also avoid sea lanes controlled by the U.S. Navy. Read more…

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