As China widens its ‘One Belt, One Road’ vision, Maxwell Downman examines the project’s economic and security implications

Every few years China presents a new concept to the world, encapsulated in a memorable slogan. Commentators have been by turn excited and confused by slogans such as ‘Peaceful Rise’, ‘Harmonious World’, ‘New-Great Power Relation’,and ‘China Dream’. As one slogan vanishes, another one magically appears. Yet the latest iteration, the Belt Road Initiative, appears to be here to stay.

More commonly known as OBOR, the initiative was recently enshrined in the Communist Party’s Constitution at this year’s 19th Party Congress. The primacy of OBOR reflects a growing desire for China to take on global leadership and actively shape the global order in China’s image, as well as signalling Xi Jinping’s expanding power domestically. But what is behind this slogan?

The primacy of OBOR reflects a growing desire for China to take on global leadership

OBOR has beenformedfrom multiple slogans to become a ‘slogan of slogans’”.It has ‘One Vision’ to make the world a ‘community of shared destiny’ through a staggering array of global infrastructure projects. This is to be achieved through its ‘Two Features’:the Silk Road Economic Belt (One Belt) will connect China with Europe, Central Asia, South and Southeast Asia by land, while the 21st Maritime Silk Road (One Road) will connect China’s ports with South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, The Middle East and Africa.

More slogans state that the initiative will build ‘Three Connections’ – political, economic, and cultural – according to the ‘Four Spirits’ of peacefulness, friendliness, openness and inclusivity. Ultimately, this should achieve the ‘Five Goals of Connectivity and Cooperation’: international policy coordination; global infrastructure connectivity; unimpeded trade; financial integration; and people-to-people bonds.

Beijing hosted its first ‘Belt and Road Forum’ in May, attended by 29 heads of state and 130 different countries
Beijing hosted its first ‘Belt and Road Forum’ in May, attended by 29 heads of state and 130 different countries

Despite this final goal’s importance for deepening multilateral cooperation, it has received less media attention than China’s astounding overseas economic investments. Yet for China, people and culture are central to this project. As Xi Jinping declared at the Asia Annual Conference in 2015, OBOR will ‘promote inter-civilisation exchanges to build bridges of friendship for our people, drive human development and safeguard peace of the world’.

Chinese civilisation is certainly a driver of both the historical and the modern day Silk Road.  Professor Li Guoqiang, deputy director of the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing,notes that ‘the open, diverse and inclusive qualities of the Tang led to the prosperity and success of China’, describing the influx of Buddhism into China in the 7th century. The historical Silk Road and its influx of trade correlates with the ‘civilisational strength’ of the Ming and early Qing dynasty: silk, ceramics, tea, and gunpowder brought China power, prosperity, and stability. Prof. Li thinks that any true understanding of OBOR requires us to ‘inherit the historical and cultural heritage in the manner of the historical silk road’.

Dr Xue Li, Head of the Department of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, similarly finds important lessons in the Chinese tributary system and Confucian ideas of hierarchy and harmony. The Silk Road reflects China’s ambitions to create a Sino-centric, although still open Asian order. For Xue, a multipolar world consists of many ‘civilisational nodes’. OBOR seeks to establish China in its rightful place as the centre of an Eastern node, creating harmony in a currently unbalanced world.

A narrative of economic and cultural connectivity may help to reduce suspicious attitudes towards China’s rise

The initiative has certainly shown a deliberate effort to link economic globalisation with China’s wider strategic concerns. According to Dr Yong Dengof Maryland University, it is a natural outgrowth of Beijing’s efforts to develop its western regions and give Chinese cooperation with Southeast Asia renewed purpose and momentum. One of the lessons from the historical Silk Road is that cross-border trade and cultural exchange build mutual respect and trust. In transforming cities in Xinjiang, the home of China’s restive Muslim Uighur community, Beijing aspires to integrate the western provinces and promote Han migration westwards, strengthening Chinese stability through investment and trade.

At home, OBOR provides a vehicle for President Xi to stimulate Chinese economic growth, the social contract on which the Communist Party’s legitimacy is based. China’s growth has also slowed from double digit figures to between 5-6 per cent since 2010.  Professor Jin Canrong of Renmin University notes, ‘It’s a problem of Chinese overcapacity and development.’ China needs to keep the economy churning, while developing the western regions and integrating regional economies around itself by spreading its fiscal capacity.

For many countries in Central and South East Asia, the historical narrative of the Silk Road will have some appeal. It can be seen as a story of peaceful trade, replete with a rich history of religious and harmonious cultural exchange. A narrative of economic and cultural connectivity may helpto reduce suspicious attitudes towards China’s rise. OBOR entails an embrace, rather than abandonment, of the international marketplace and the forces of globalisation.

Yet if ‘culture is the glue that reinforces the partnerships of the One Belt One Road Initiative’,as some Chinese scholars assert, China may have some difficulties in promoting the initiative. Compared to the empowering values of equality that, at least rhetorically, underpin the US’ soft power agenda, the idea of ‘order created from hierarchy’ lacks appeal. Xue’s vision of re-establishing a Sino-centric hierarchy with China at the top will unnerve many. ‘The challenge for China going forward may be one of hearts and minds rather than dollars and pounds,’ says one senior Chinese scholar.

Many in East, South, and Southeast Asia – regions that will determine the success of OBOR– will be wondering what strings are attached to Chinese investment. They will have their fears of what it will mean for their sovereignty, autonomy, employment, and economic freedoms. It is unclear what future there is for countries that aspire to increased economic cooperation, but worry about political or security competition inside OBOR. Similarly, Russia will bewatching carefully to ascertain whether Chinese investment pulls Central Asian countries away from its sphere of influence.

The initiative’s openness may be its weakness. Private Chinese companies haveenthusiastically jumped on the OBOR bandwagon and their practice will need to reflect the initiative’s win-win agenda. If Chinese firms are seen to be maximising profits at the expense of local benefit, the initiative will risk reputational damage.

Encompassing the full scope of Chinese relations with the world, its slogan of ‘win-win cooperation’ and ‘developing a community of shared destiny’ may be difficult to pull off. Its slogan suggests that it aspires to be everything, yet ultimately it could amount to little. Countries will be able to project their biggest hopes and fears of China on the initiative; and economic investment may not achieve its loftier aims.

This is not to say OBOR isjust an empty slogan: the scale of the initiative is daunting. According to Dr Jie Yu of the London School of Economics, the countries it plans to include boast 55% of Global GDP, 70% of the world’s population, and 75% of global energy. This year Beijing hosted its first ‘Belt and Road Forum,’ attended by 29 heads of state and 130 different countries. One hundred countries have indicated their support and 50 have signed cooperative agreements:the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and Silk Road are already transforming local economies.

The 19thParty Congress saw Xi Jinping cement his power for at least another five years. He has elevated himself to a level similar to that of Mao Zedong, with the enshrinement of his branch of political thought and OBOR into the Party’s Constitution. OBOR aspires to present a rising China as a tale of more than just economic development, but also a narrative founded on a shared past and future. It tells the story of why a Sino-centric sphere built on trust, trade and mutual respect is good for everyone. In order to avoid this slogan being condemned to the annals of history like so many others, China will need to win support for this narrative as well as for its financial investments.

Maxwell Downman is a political researcher with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), London’s independent disarmament and arms control think-tank. He focuses on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and East Asian international security

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