Is China's 'Belt and Road' a Strategy?

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The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the Belt and Road) were proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visits to Central Asia and Southeast Asia, respectively, in September and October of 2013. A clear sign of the political significance of the Belt and Road is that it was included in the Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening the Reform, adopted on November 12, 2013. The last paragraph of Article 26, Section VII of the Decision reads:

We will set up development-oriented financial institutions, accelerate the construction of infrastructure connecting China with neighboring countries and regions, and work hard to build a Silk Road Economic Belt and a Maritime Silk Road, so as to form a new pattern of all-round opening.

Interestingly, few Chinese scholars and pundits initially seemed interested in Xi’s proposal. One indication of lukewarm domestic reaction to this new foreign policy initiative is that a search of “the Belt and Road” in article titles in the China National Knowledge Infrastructure—the world’s largest digital collection of Chinese language academic resources—generates merely 169 entries in 2014. The same search, however, produces an astonishing 2,735 entries for 2015 (as of December 13). By now the Belt and Road has indisputably become the most discussed and studied topic among Chinese officials, analysts, and journalists. It apparently has overshadowed Xi’s other signature initiatives, such as a “new model of great-power relations” and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Amid this nationwide craze over the Belt and Road, I was invited to attend a conference on the topic. I had written on the subject before, but never been to such a conference, so I happily accepted the invitation. A day of presentations and discussions by some of China’s leading experts on the Belt and Road proved truly enlightening. Here are some critical reflections inspired by that conference.

Many Chinese and foreign observers view the Belt and Road as a grand Chinese strategy to extend its economic and geopolitical influence in the Eurasian continent and beyond. But Beijing has explicitly refused to call it a strategy. In “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” (Vision and Actions for short), a document jointly issued by the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Commerce at the Boao Forum on March 28, 2015, the Belt and Road is described as 倡议, translated into English as “initiative.”

Then on September 23, the three ministries jointly issued a statement on standardizing the English translation of the Belt and Road. The statement specifically emphasizes that initiative should be in the singular instead of the plural form, and that the words strategy, project, program, or agenda should not be used.

Why is the Chinese government unwilling to present the Belt and Road as a strategy? What are the differences between initiative and strategy?

倡议 simply means a call for action, usually in the name of a public good. It is a unilateral move that requires willing cooperation from others who also have stakes in the provision of the public good. One example is that the city of Beijing has repeatedly called on its residents to use public transportation so as to reduce air pollution, but few residents have answered the city government’s call.

Because an initiative relies on voluntary participation (as opposed to intimidation or inducement), it faces the collective action problem. Moreover, voluntary participation makes an initiative a loose association of interested parties who can join or quit at any time. The U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” is a good example of what an initiative can and cannot achieve.

By contrast, a strategy is a deliberate plan of actions that aim to achieve specific goals, and these goals are usually exclusive (such as security or free trade), as opposed to public goods, which are inclusive. Besides, to be successful a strategy often requires close association among those who share its specific goals, and such close association is usually institutionalized through explicit rules and procedures (e.g., NATO or the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea).

The Belt and Road Initiative, according to Vision and Actions, is “open to all countries, and international and regional organizations for engagement.” It “advocates peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit,” as well as “promotes practical cooperation in all fields, and works to build a community of shared interests, destiny, and responsibility featuring mutual political trust, economic integration and cultural inclusiveness.” Thus the Belt and Road Initiative is nothing less than a Chinese call on the international community to jointly work toward a “harmonious and inclusive” world. It is an updated—but much more detailed and operational—version of the “harmonious world” proposed by the former Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2005.

Yet as discussed above, such a call on behalf of the international community is going to be plagued by the collective problem. “A community of shared interests, destiny, and responsibility” is in the best interest of every country, but not every country is willing or able to contribute to that community. In the end the Belt and Road Initiative strikes one as a China-led coalition of the willing that relies on bilateral cooperation to achieve a set of mutually agreed-upon goals.

As such the Belt and Road Initiative probably should not be called a strategy. Besides, a strategy may smack too much of geopolitical ambitions, and Beijing has made it abundantly clear that the Belt and Road is a vision for “harmony, peace and prosperity,” not a geopolitical conspiracy. In other words, it should not be viewed as a Chinese scheme to counter the U.S. “rebalance” to Asia or to expand Beijing’s geopolitical influence in the Eurasian continent and beyond.

But regardless of how reassuring the Chinese official rhetoric sounds, it is inevitable that some analysts will view the Belt and Road as a geopolitical strategy. Most importantly, economic interests—though couched in terms of mutual benefit and prosperity—are geopolitical interests. As Chinese investment—by state-owned or private actors—in and trade with foreign countries increase, so do its geopolitical interests in those countries. One can certainly have geopolitical interests without economic interests, but economic interests are necessarily geopolitical interests.

As one famous Chinese analyst pointed out a few days ago, the Chinese government shouldn’t be shy about using “strategy” to describe the Belt and Road Initiative, as long as Beijing is firmly committed to bringing about mutual benefits through the implementation of this strategy. After all, deeds speak louder than words. “China should have full confidence to proclaim to the world that the Belt and Road is a Chinese grand strategy,” he wrote. “It is a public strategy, not a conspiratorial one.”

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