In China’s Belt and Road Initiative is neither a strategy, nor a vision. It is a process, published in the EU-Asia at a Glance Series this month, Grzegorz Stec writes:
Given the global attention received by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and its impact on international affairs, it is remarkable how ambiguous the initiative remains. This is hardly astonishing, as Chinese foreign policies tend to strategically focus on general trajectories and leave more elasticity in comparison to Western ones. A reason for the government’s reluctance to attach a specific definition to the BRI is that it continues to evolve.
Certainly, as Stec goes on to document, President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party’s rhetoric on the BRI has been honed elastically to its audience in China and abroad. In the CCP’s strategic document of March 2015 “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, the BRI is descibed as ‘an ambitious economic vision of the opening-up of and cooperation among the countries along the Belt and Road.’ More recently, at the opening ceremony of the 19th CPC National Congress in October, Xi Jinping extended on this, describing the BRI as a vision and construction of ‘a shared destiny for all mankind’ (人类命运共同体 renlei mingyun gongtongti).
Much might and has been read into the domestic and foreign policy implications of Xi Jinping’s messaging. As Jacob Mardell in the Diplomatwrites, ‘like many of the developments that distinguish Xi’s era, this newly assertive foreign policy should be read in the context of the Party’s historical mission to achieve “national rejuvenation.” Xi’s leadership marks a continuation of, rather than a radical break from the past, and much of the groundwork for Xi’s new foreign policy had been laid by Hu Jintao in his 2012 Party Congress Report.’ Notably, Point XI of that report reads: ‘XI: Continuing to Promote the Noble Cause of Peace and Development of Mankind.’
A Crisis of Origins
For many, the BRI emerged from its first introduction in September 2013 in a speech given by President Xi Jinping at Nazarbayev Univerity in Astana, Kazakhstan. As Stec writes:
‘The name given to the initiative at the time was “Economic Belt along the Silk Road” (丝绸之路经济带sichou zhi lu jingji dai) and was introduced making strong links to the historical Silk Road and emphasising the development potential for Central Asia. The “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (21世纪海上丝绸之路 21 shiji haishang sichou zhi lu), targeting Southeast Asia, Oceania, and North Africa was unveiled soon after in October 2013 in President Xi’s speech to the Indonesian Parliament in Jakarta. The two initiatives combined then acquired the name, “One Belt, One Road” (一带一路 yidai yilu) by the end of 2013.’
The BRI is not an invention but a series of structural effects
Yet countenance the above with another story, this from Richard McGregor and his 2010 book The Party, and the Belt and Road Initiative begins to emerge less as a vision decidely initiated by President Xi than as a structural effect or series of structural effects of the global financial crisis of 2008 and of the preceding two decades of ‘opening up’ policies experimented with by Deng Xiaoping:
The implosion of the western financial system along with an evaporation of confidence in the US, Europe and Japan, overnight pushed China’s global standing several notches higher. In the space of a few months in early 2009, unconstrained by any serious public debate at home, the Chinese state committed $50 billion in extra funding for the International Monetary Fund and $38 billion with Hong Kong for an Asian monetary fund; extended a $25 billion loan to cash-strapped Russian oil companies; set aside $30 billion for Australian resource companies; offered tens of billions more to various countries of companies in South America, central and Southeast Asia, to lock up commodities and lay down its marker for future purchases.
The role reversal between China and the west was most starkly illustrated at the height of the European financial crisis, in October 2011. The day after European nations lifted the size of their bailout funds to 1 trillion euros, Klaus Regling, the chief executive of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), flew to Beijing, looking for support from the Chinese.
Accounting for a structural macrohistory of the BRI, what begins to emerge is a global timelapse of relative bloating, gorging, overreaching, anorexicising and re-positioning of US and European financial and political institutions vis-a-vis China as debt-support-fosterfather. Scaled closer to the contours of China and the satellite timelapse between 2008 and 2013 shows a series of shrinking lightpools of lesser-lighted Special Economic Zones chased by a number of measures of cheap lending and massive domestic infrastructural investment projects to prop the lights of the factories of the world up. The pulsing swarm of electromagnetic frequencies encircling Xi’an to Moscow to Rotterdam and back only then begins to effect the frame as the exogenous reverberation of these infra-global-structural effects interiorly filtered into a series of strategic trajectories to deal with intravened surplus. Indeed, for many, the BRI forms as much a foreign policy push to consolidate political, economic and resource spheres of influence abroad as a push to export China’s excess cement, steel, and machinery to poorer, neighboring countries while developing higher, more lucrative technical standards in construction, engineering, and telecommunication for its transitioning interial economy.
The BRI does not stretch west but pulls east
The rhetoric of BRI shares much with Deng Xiaoping Theory in promulgating ‘opening up’ as the process by which China returns to the global stage. Significantly, in President Xi’s keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in May 2017, Xi calls for the Belt and Road to be built into a ‘road of opening up.’ ‘Opening up’, he states, ‘brings progress while isolation results in backwardness. For a country, opening up is like the struggle of a chrysalis breaking free from its cacoon. There will be short-term pains, but such pains will create a new life. The Belt and Road Initiative should be an open one that will achieve both economic growth and balanced development.’
The image of opening up like the struggle of a chrysalis is powerful and conveys much of China’s painful experience of the 20th Century emerging out of two millenia of imperial rule (1912), Japanese and Russian occupation (1945) and Mao’s subsequent isolationism (1975). It does however also alloy with another dynamic of the Belt and Road and a favoured catchphrase among CCP cadres: of ‘bringing the outside in’ 由外至内 (youwai zhinei). The difference might seem innocuous — opening up as a movement of embrace outward; bringing the outside in as a movement of brace inward: the centripetal and centrifugal spin of a China in curvilinear motion. (Taken one further, and some analysts might explore this metaphor of a China in curvilinear motion at the centre of its Confucian universe where a ‘shared destiny for all mankind’ (人类命运共同体 renlei mingyun gongtongti) holds to neo-Confucian tenets of tiān (天 heaven) and dì (地, earth).) Yet the messaging does also open up a broader conceptual proposition, with which we might interrogate the Belt and Road:
Is the Belt and Road Initiative a unilinear projection from Beijing or a series of microstructural effects stacked, and emanating from the myriad dances of sovereign states, Advanced Business Services organisations and global financial and production networks?
In an opinion piece — Fingers crossed is not enough as we run out of road on BREXIT — published in the Evening Standard on Monday 19 February, George Bridges writes:
‘To make Brexit a success, the Government’s plans must be built on the truth and an honest assessment of the facts […] those plans need to answer a simple question: in our new relationship with the European Union, what matters more — control of our affairs or access to European markets?’
The article goes on to conclude:
The government should obviously not reveal its entire negotiating position. But clarity is needed if ministers are to agree with the EU on a clear head of terms of our future relationship by the time we leave the EU in March 2019. I said some weeks ago that if we don’t agree on such terms, the transition period will not be a bridge to a clear destination but a gang plank into thin air. Precious days have passed, but the fog has not lifted. If we are to leave in a stable and orderly way, clarity on these basic questions is needed. Fingers crossed is not enough
The parallels of BRI and BREXIT are evident here, both hold the attention of the international community and yet remain remarkably ambiguous. Yet there are equally evident differences. While the former is less open to domestic public scrutiny; the latter is strongly debated. Furthermore, while the BRI might be observed as a narrative of national rejuventation built on the continuation of the preceding decades’ groundwork (and the ‘open door’ policies laid down by Deng Xiaoping); BREXIT appears to narrativise its national rejuvenation as a radical break or ‘taking back of control’ from precedent grounds.
What is all the more significant is in the BRI and BREXIT’s shared macrohistorical compositioning as reverb-paths of the global financial and subsequent European sovereign debt crises. Yet where one appears to have emerged with a strenghtened hand on the world stage; the other appears caught in a subregional identity crisis of isolationist (“take back control”) and globalist (“a global Britain”) indecision. The Belt and Road Initiative and BREXIT do also however hold in structural interrelation. As Theresa May’s recent trip to China attests, Britain after exiting the European Union has ambitions to pivot toward China and deepen the investment channels already carved in £59 billion of annual trade and inward Chinese FDI in large infrastructure projects such as the Northern Powerhouse Initiative. This Golden Era in UK-China relations and its proposed deepening in the coming decades further adds to the sense of the political urgency of expanding the categories of connection, particularly at a time where some commentatorshave noted in the low-key nature of the Prime Minister’s visit, the very subtle reverberative beginnings of a diminishing of this relationship.
Enter the New Silk Road Project
In June of this year, myself and three colleagues will travel the length of the BRI’s economic belt, beginning in London, the far terminus of the BRI and ending in Yiwu, a new town on the coast of south China, home to the world’s largest wholesales market. The hope is to trace and outline the contours of the BRI as it unfolds to effect the economies, polities and societies of the individuals it intersects. We plan to engage in this sense with as many individuals as possible and to photograph and film the BRI as imaged so imagined. The New Silk Road Project emerges then, at least in my mind, as resolutely in the middle of the moment, or several moments promising great change and by that project-logic of ambiguity as neither a strategy nor a vision but a process. Call it opening.
If you are interested in taking part in the journey for a two-week stint, visit thenewsilkroadproject.com