Yesterday Shenzhen to Xinjiang,
today Central and Southeast Asia,
where to on the morrow?
This timely book touches upon the many and diverse aspects related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), while offering a clear-headed and global analysis of the project. Especially interesting are the different expert interviews that are spread throughout the book, which add a detailed perspective on the related chapters.
The BRI creates a discussion about a new phase in the world’s globalisation and the subsequent reordering of the internationalisation order. More specifically, Uwe Hoering analyses the BRI as China’s search for a place under the sun as a great power. Invoking the Silk Roads, China’s tentacles seem to cover the biggest part of the global stretching out from Asia towards Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The wide coverage and rich details provided by the author make this book an interesting read.
A gold coated umbrella term
Hoering starts off by describing China’s domestic rationales in connecting the Eastern Coast with its Western regions and beyond. This demonstration shows how the country is building its presence and influence around the world. However, the author notes, the BRI is a work in progress. As such, its thematic reach and problem areas are ever-expanding. Indeed, in the past five years, the BRI has taken on huge proportions, yet the actual extent remains foggy at best. The path is, it seems, made by walking.
The book’s subtitle points to China’s developmental model, which is explicitly laid out as an alternative to Western institutional and development paradigms. Examples include the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), proposed as part of the BRI and the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB). However, the author is quick to point out that this endeavour also includes a model of order. This invocation implies a security and military dimension, the extent of which is still not as visible as the economic initiatives, yet.
The image of the BRI is one of an immense construction site including railroads, highways, container ports and terminals, economic zones and pipelines. However, as the author notes, many of these projects exist still very much only on paper. As a symbol then, the BRI is an umbrella term of existing and planned connections to the future. This conclusion also becomes clear through China’s official guidelines, which consist of little more than a Vision and Action Plan.
If you want to get rich, first build a road
A core theme of the BRI is building infrastructure with a focus on investments, growth and prosperity. This alternative vision of development emphasises proactive government support in providing connectivity and stability. In this way, China is able to open new markets abroad for Chinese companies during the restructuring of its domestic economy. Consequently, this quest for continued economic growth leads to the expansion of China’s concept of (social) stability.
China’s domestic troubles are tightly linked to the development of the participating countries and as a contribution to the global system as a whole. Here, the author understands the iniative as a new Long March, with the aim of promoting China’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ on the global stage. Through economic integration, the country is positioning itself as the central hub of modern production, innovation and standard setting in its region.
Uwe Hoering notes the risks and loose guidelines that come with the plan, such as debt traps and poor economic feasibility and environmental damage studies. Specifically, the author wonders whether the narrative of an ecological civilisation is but a green façade for a new and expansive phase of China’s development. Examples are China’s search for resources abroad and the lack of any mention of enviromental impact assessments in the official policy guides. At the same time, the ecological Green Silk Road Fund does push for solar and wind energy in the economic corridors.
Economic interdependence and geopolitical conflict
The BRI is also deployed as a peace project in the South China Sea, where decade-long territorial conflicts have characterised a fragile friendship between China and the different ASEAN countries. The author notes the Greater Mekong Subregion in a similar fashion. For many of countries in Asia, China is the biggest trade partner, but the regional views on China’s influence vary widely. The BRI is played out in these problematic areas, coupling development perspectives with China’s strategic interests.
By proposing an improved standard of life as the basis of economic growth through infrastructure, China does offer an alternative to the neoliberal paradigm. Herein lies the true attractiveness of the Chinese example. However in Africa, as the author notes, the extraction of resources and the building of infrastructure and trade has done little to upgrade the African economy away from supplying raw materials and agricultural products.
As such, there is little difference with the Western model. Hoering shows that these image problems somewhat diminished in 2015 after Xi Jinping emphasised the importance of East Africa as a bridge between Asia and Europe. However, is Africa just a side branch to the BRI? The author notes that the importance seems to be very small in comparison with Central and Southeast Asia.
As Hoering writes, the BRI is China’s call for a position in the international order congealed in cement and asphalt. However, the project also serves domestic considerations. As such, the BRI is tightly linked with the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation in the world order. In this regard, the development of the Chinese economy serves the growth of other countries.
At the same time, this alternative development model builds an economic and political counterweight to liberal democracy and Western-led global governance. Furthermore, the author notes, just like the infamous Lord of the Rings, the BRI has the potential to find and bind all. Ruling all, however, seems not to be in darkness, but rather in blurriness.
For Hoering, the key question is whether these economic and political structures associated with the BRI will erode the existing system and establish of a new imperial system centred on China. The internationalisation of the Renminbi and the establishment of new multilateral institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the aforementioned AIIB are but some examples.
In the context of China’s relations with America, the BRI is about the competition for global leadership. In conclusion, the BRI is best understood as the guiding principle for China to position itself in key positions along the global trade routes and in the world. However, China is confronted with the crucial dilemma between control or profitability along both the Belt and the Road.