China must tread lightly with its 'one belt, one road' initiative

Shi Yinhong says above all, Beijing needs to respect other nations involved in the project and seek to allay their concerns through soft power

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 August, 2015, 4:46pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 August, 2015, 4:46pm

When President Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan and Indonesia in September 2013, he promoted for the first time building, with various other countries, the "Silk Road Economic Belt" and the "21st Century Maritime Silk Road". At that time, no one could have anticipated the priority, emphasis and fervour that the "One Belt and One Road" project would now be enjoying in China - together with other prominent initiatives such as the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. To understand China's domestic and international statecraft, it is essential to consider the aspirations, planning and implementation of the "belt and road" initiative, or, more broadly, Xi's economic strategy within his foreign policy.

Above all, prudence is required in dealing with the problems that may arise during the initiative, as well as with regard to other strategic projects - including China's construction of overseas high-speed railways, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Yes, this is an appeal to China for prudence! Most importantly, Beijing has to realise it's vital to fully engage the countries on whose sovereign lands the infrastructure systems are to be built, and this includes conducting far more international consultations than has been the case up to now. The projects must be international collective enterprises; this is the only way to substantially ease the other nations' worries and suspicions that may well present themselves.

Where does the critical bottleneck lie at present? Not within China, whose powerful central government is obsessed with the belt and road, together with very enthusiastic provinces. Rather, it lies in these international negotiations, primarily with one country at a time, which are proving far more complex and dynamic than many in China had expected. They also lag far behind the repeatedly declared aspirations of Beijing.

At present, the state of affairs can be described as "China: unilateral fervour; others: little, if any, enthusiasm" - excepting the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank project, given the number of countries that have signed up.

China must be sincere it its approaches to the countries along the belt and road route, and find out what its partners really need, rather than deciding by itself their requirements. In this vitally important aspect, attention must be paid to the issue of compatibility, particularly with regard to their experience in development. We Chinese should not suppose that the approach of massive infrastructure projects and growth through huge investment - which has characterised China's economic development in the past two decades - is universally applicable and welcomed by all, or even most other developing countries, with their distinct circumstances. If such complex particularities, or even opposite inclinations, are ignored, China could well follow the often disastrous mistakes of Western universalism, criticised so frequently in contemporary China.

Moreover, doing more and saying less should be a principle for China. To do otherwise could well aggravate the antipathy of India and Russia, and raise or increase suspicions among Central Asian republics and many countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

It is vital for China to realise that the huge infrastructure projects to be constructed on the sovereign lands of countries in Central, Southeast, and South Asia are, by their very nature, sensitive. It is natural for the other nations to have doubts and worries about longer-term issues, including sovereignty, autonomy, and the distribution of prospective benefits. If China fails to act appropriately, such construction will bring out nationalistic worries and stimulate political controversy domestically, as well as factional struggles shrouded by nationalism.

Equally important for China is to avoid trying to push the project too fast. The enterprise must be divided into different stages for each geographical region, sub-region and individual country, with strategic ideas and plans developed and revised as appropriate.

China must also recognise that its strategic plans are only part of the whole, and that they should be revised if conflicts arise with the partner nations. When confronted by doubts, worries and claimed interests of foreign countries and their people, China must undertake serious research to ascertain to what degree such claims are reasonable and how China and the partners should deal with them.

For all of the above, the most important thing is that China be sincere, for the benefit of all, throughout the initiatives - from the creation phase to possession and joint operation. China must respect its cooperative counterparts, and behave with comity and modesty towards them, and seek to "edify" them if necessary.

Contrary to the mainstream inclination that has been clearly visible, the strategy for the belt and road has to focus much more on security, diplomacy, culture and education rather than merely on direct investment, transport, energy extraction and industrial/mineral trade.

A system of "soft infrastructure" must be built up, including the appropriate development of farming, as well as hospitals schools, retail and commercial centres and small factories, while also tackling poverty and ensuring that the environment is protected. These elements are all vital: China's words and deeds should add up to an effective "soft power" with a widespread and profound positive influence - which, as a great ancient Chinese poet wrote, "moistens all things softly, without sound".

Shi Yinhong is professor of international relations and strategic studies at Renmin University