China’s belt and road plan deserves the benefit of the doubt
Derwin Pereira says critics wary of China’s belt and road should understand that all great powers seek to win political influence using the pull of economics. So far, Beijing has not detracted from this playbook
The belt and road summit, to be held in Beijing in the middle of this month, could help inaugurate a new intercontinental order that brings Asian countries closer to one another, and collectively to Europe and Africa. This shift would occur even as America reassesses the value of its international economic engagements. Clearly, the winner in the circumstances will be China and the countries that join it in its historic endeavour.
The scope of the Chinese initiative is truly breathtaking. It seeks to connect 65 countries across three continents to China, thereby influencing the lives of 4.4 billion people with a total gross domestic product of US$2 trillion once the vision is realised.
The Belt and Road Initiative has two parts: the land route known as the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the sea route which is called the Maritime Silk Road. The names are a throwback to pre-colonial times in which Chinese wealth and political prowess underwrote a transcontinental economic system. It is that system which the belt and road seeks to recreate today.
The economic benefits of the project are clear. It will dramatically overhaul the nature of economic relations over a massive area by increasing connectivity in the areas of policy, infrastructure, trade, currency and people.
This will benefit many, including members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The belt and road will complement and give added impetus to the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity, which lies at the heart of the association’s credibility as an economic organisation.
The key challenge for the belt and road will be to institutionalise the progress, now occurring in some areas but not yet forming a contiguous whole, which has been made since its announcement in 2013. For example, there has been a spurt of activity in countries such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus and Poland, but it will take time for the epic route to gain an economic identity of its own.
Nevertheless, the economic direction is clear: towards an integrated world to maximise economic opportunities for all its members.
In spite of such benefits, however, cynics and sceptics have seized on the initiative’s political ramifications. Detractors have been busy at work trying to undermine the plan even before it has crystallised. The refrain running through their efforts to sabotage the Chinese effort is that participation in the project will turn countries into economic satellites of China, which will use its economic influence to bring smaller nations into its political and strategic orbit.
This suspicion about the belt and road is correct, but the opposition to it is not.
Of course China will use this opportunity to strengthen its orbit. However, it does not follow that participating nations will be drawn into it inexorably. This will be so particularly if Beijing wants to create an exclusive orbit that forecloses the economic, diplomatic and military options of other countries.
As for orbits, the Chinese are not the first, let alone the only, great power to employ the gravitational pull of economics on smaller nations for political and military reasons. America’s Marshall Plan for Western Europe after the second world war used aid to rebuild the shattered continent, simultaneously drawing countries into its economic and political sphere. The Soviet Union consolidated the eponymous bloc in Eastern Europe by setting up Comecon to unite the countries of the region economically and politically.
The cold war contoured the work of those institutions. Its military components – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Warsaw Pact – depended on contending American and Soviet leadership. Even Asean began life as a cold war organisation allied with America; two of its founding five members were treaty allies of the United States.
When Japan entered the game of the post-war powers, there was little doubt that its Official Development Assistance programme was linked directly to the furthering of its economic and political interests.
Thus, there is no reason why China today should not seek to place its great-power footprint on a world where American economic nationalism and isolationism could result in its strategic retrenchment. That would leave America’s allies and other partners exposed, much as the downfall of the Soviet Union did for its allies and partners in the 1990s.
The Belt and Road Initiative is a grand declaration of China’s self-image as the main ascendant power of the 21st century. Its greatest achievement would be to normalise China’s economic rise.
Today, acknowledgement of that rise – effusive or grudging – is hedged in by concerns over how the erstwhile Middle Kingdom will deploy its political and military power. Clearly, there are grounds for concern, such as over Beijing’s prickly behaviour in the South China Sea.
On a larger scale, however, the belt and road affords China a moment of great diplomatic opportunity to show that it is a normal power – one which seeks to maximise its legitimate interests within the multilateral system – and not a revisionist power which seeks to expand its interests by subverting the international order.
From the other countries’ point of view, it is premature at the very least to think that the belt and road will form an exclusively China-centred bloc. Critics point out how close Laos and Cambodia are to China because of their bilateral ties with it, amplified by the belt and road. The critics forget to add that other countries, such as Indonesia and Singapore, maintain a polite but studied distance from China in spite of the belt and road.
Certainly, China should avoid the temptation to become a hegemon that comes with accelerating power. It should let the belt and road evolve gradually and naturally into an integrative geo-economic entity.
However, other countries should allow China to play this benign role by giving it the benefit of the doubt. Turning the belt and road into another dimension of the so-called “China Threat” will only help that threat to materialise.
Derwin Pereira heads Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consultancy. He is also a member of Harvard University’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs