Is China’s belt and road ready to be the new face of globalisation?

Andreea Brînza says the initiative has plenty of ambition but still lacks a clear vision or some early project successes. And, importantly, China’s relatively weak soft power remains a drawback at this stage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 May, 2017, 5:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 May, 2017, 6:22pm

If Thomas Friedman wrote his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree today, maybe the Lexus would be replaced with a Chinese vehicle, like a Geely, for example, because globalisation has a new pole: China.

In the past, the US led the wave of globalisation through its economic might, soft power and hyper-connectivity. But with the Trump administration now promoting protectionism, China has replaced the US as a standard-bearer for globalisation. This new face of globalisation has Asian features, too, thanks to Beijing’s new soft power strategy: the Belt and Road Initiative.

Formerly known as the “One Belt, One Road” strategy, it was interpreted by Western observers as an ellipse of roads, railways and pipelines which link China to Europe. The new name emphasises that the idea is much more than a single belt and a single maritime corridor; it’s more of a network of corridors and roads which connect all parts of Eurasia.

Still, a quick look at the map will make us understand that the Belt and Road Initiative is not only a connection by land and water, but specifically one that encapsulates all Chinese investments along the way. If it were only a road, railway or corridor, it would pass through conflict zones like Afghanistan. Therefore, we should see the belt and road more as a zone of investment, rather than a de facto road.

Moreover, the recent Chinese investments in Africa and Latin America, placed under the umbrella of the belt and road, support the idea of a worldwide strategy. Thus, the belt and road should be perceived as a Chinese strategy for the 21st century and as a new type of Chinese external policy. The belt and road may well be Xi Jinping’s (習近平) landmark strategy, similar to Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) “peaceful rise”.

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Some people no doubt hold the view that the belt and road is just an iron silk road, defined by infrastructure projects like the railways which connect China with Europe. But those railways aren’t new. Moreover, the first route of the iron Silk Road, from Chongqing ( 重慶 ) to Duisburg, Germany, was revived by Hewlett-Packard in 2011 to transport its products to Europe, and not by the Chinese government or Chinese companies. HP’s example was followed by other companies, giving an example of the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative.

We can also see the belt and road as a new face of globalisation. Even before the belt and road forum held on Sunday and Monday in Beijing, Chinese state media were already referring to it as “Globalisation 2.0”. On a theoretical basis, it fits perfectly with the idea of globalisation, because the initiative sets out to enhance the interconnectivity between countries and people, it promotes free trade, aims to become an avatar for China’s soft power strategy, and wants to help the countries along the road to develop.

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But on the ground, the reality may be a little different.

“The Belt and Road Initiative, in a sense, is China’s answer to globalisation,” said Zhou Wenzhong, the secretary general of the Boao Forum for Asia. That much is clear, but how? Until now, despite the stated goals, China has yet to articulate a coherent strategy for the belt and road.

What does the project really involve and how will it be implemented? For example, how does China plan to achieve policy coordination in the belt and road countries, and how does it plan to strengthen people-to-people ties? Will the belt and road simply remain an infrastructure project? Nobody – apart from the Chinese officials, who have been quiet – really knows, but each scholar sees the project differently. There is no consistency even in the use of the name of the initiative. Many scholars still prefer the old “One Belt, One Road”.

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One of the main goals of the belt and road is to forge connections within Eurasia and improve its infrastructure. But, almost four years after the announcement of the initiative, none of the projects envisioned by China has been completed. Even the most important Chinese project in Europe, the Budapest-Belgrade high-speed railway, is being held up by European Union regulations.

China lacks the same sway with young people as Japan or South Korea, with their unmatched cultural soft power

Another mission of the belt and road is to build bonds between people. The achievements in this area are debatable. In the Western world, the Chinese government actively tries to promote stronger ties through its Confucius institutes and various student grants and exchanges. But despite its efforts, China lacks the same sway with young people as Japan or South Korea, with their unmatched cultural soft power.

For China and the belt and road, this is a drawback, because without strong social ties, it is difficult to persuade people to open up to Chinese investments and opportunities. On the contrary, lately, debates have begun even in Europe about the need to restrict Chinese investments in the EU, on the basis of reciprocity, as foreign companies face numerous barriers in China.

Without a clear vision of the belt and road, without tangible achievements and with an inefficient soft power strategy, China doesn’t yet have the power to become a new driver of globalisation, even if the US has lost some of its worldwide appeal under the populist and anti-globalist Trump administration.

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But let’s not be too pessimistic. Maybe the glorious times of the Tang dynasty, when China was the soft-power leader of Asia, may return, restoring China to the status it has longed for. And if in the past globalisation had the face of Disney characters with Mickey Mouse ears, maybe, in the near future, Disney will be replaced by the Wanda Group, and globalisation will have a panda’s face.

Andreea Brînza is vice-president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific. Her research focuses on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of China and especially on the Belt and Road initiative