China’s project to build infrastructure across Asia and Africa—now referred to as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—attracts superlatives. The New York Times writes of “China’s Trillion Dollar Foreign Policy”; the Brookings Institution notes the project “could cover over 4.4 billion people and generate a Gross Domestic Product of over $21 trillion”; and Quartz calls it “the most extensive global commercial-military empire in history.” (The “belt”, confusingly, refers to roads and railroads across Asia; the “road” will be a network of ports in South Asia, Africa, and Europe.)
Some analysts see the project’s economic and political ambitions as a Chinese bid to rewrite the rules of “global commerce on China’s terms,” as the New York Times put it. Such conclusions might seem like Western scaremongering. But China’s leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, describe the project in terms that are almost as grandiose.
In 2013, Xi invoked the legacy the Han dynasty’s envoy Zhang Qian, the founder of the Silk Road linking ancient China to Central Asia, Persia, and Rome. In May 2017, Xi referenced another Chinese official, the Ming dynasty’s admiral Zheng He, who led maritime expeditions to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa in the 1400s CE. Xi described Zhang and Zheng as “friendly emissaries leading camel caravans and sailing treasure-loaded ships” who “built a bridge for peace and East-West cooperation.”
Such images underscore Beijing’s message about the peaceful, cooperative nature of the Belt and Road Initiative. They also leave no doubt about China’s leadership role.
Why the Belt and Road?
Many have tried to explain China’s interest in the project as arising partially from prosaic motivations. As China’s economic growth cools down, officials are looking for ways to keep it moving. Unsurprisingly, Chinese firms are apt to be first in line to receive funding to build projects and supply materials for Belt and Road ventures. The policy also aligns with Beijing’s longstanding goal of developing China’s western provinces, since linking China to central and southern Asia will spur investment in those regions.
But such factors might be oversold. The initiative’s political overtones could lead planners to invest in economically suboptimal but diplomatically useful ‘white elephants’: ‘bridges to nowhere’ and surplus port capacity that benefit no one. Moreover, as Western donors learned in the 20th century, little prevents local governments from co-opting the fruits of these projects, which may not always align with Beijing’s economic and geopolitical interests. Some wonder whether Beijing would risk the political capital to extract loan repayments or instead quietly swallow defaults in the name of friendship, raising the costs even further.
Recent news reports illustrate the tensions in the initiative. The Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, a linchpin of the initiative, was turned over to Chinese state investors in exchange for forgiveness on Chinese debts incurred building the port. Some have seen in this a resurgence of traditional colonialism with Chinese characteristics. Almost simultaneously, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chastised India for not falling in line behind the Chinese vision—comments echoed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, suggesting the great-power politics mixed up with the initiative. And other reports suggest that parts of the Pakistan-China sections of the initiative may be on hold, potentially weakening the importance of the deal for China’s key security partner.
Given that the advantages of the initiative are unclear and its costs may be greater than advertised, why is China’s government choosing a splashy but likely unproductive foreign-policy venture instead of using its resources at home? The answer may lie in the project’s benefits for Xi, its most visible exponent.
Xi’s invocation of the Ming admiral Zheng He may reveal more than Xi realizes. In a forthcoming article in International Organization, we compare the Zheng He “treasure fleets” to the Apollo Moon missions to develop a theory of why states invest huge sums in symbolic projects. Whatever official Chinese sources say today about those expeditions, at the time senior bureaucrats viewed them as wasteful extravagances designed to burnish the reputation of an illegitimate emperor.
The Ming dynasty was founded in 1368 by the Hongwu emperor, a former peasant who led a rebellion against the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Upon Hongwu’s death in 1398, his will directed that his grandson should assume the throne, which he did, as the Jianwen emperor. But Hongwu’s sons, Jianwen’s uncles, felt threatened by the power shift. A power struggle broke out between the new emperor, backed by Confucian scholar-officials of the imperial bureaucracy, and his uncles. One ultimately defeated Jianwen in 1402 and seized the throne as the Yongle emperor.
Viewed as a usurper, Yongle took steps to bolster his regime’s stability. The late historian Hok-lam Chan writes that Yongle purged the regime, killing tens of thousands of officials and Jianwen loyalists, and destroyed the records of Jianwen’s reign. Yongle moved the capital to his northern power base, the city of Beiping (“Northern Peace”), which he rebuilt and renamed Beijing (“Northern Capital”).
His ultimate security, however, required demonstrating legitimacy. The Hongwu emperor had tried to revive what Western scholars would term the “tributary system”: rituals through which rulers of polities like Vietnam, Japan, and Korea acknowledged the Chinese emperor as their superior in return for gifts. Yongle took this practice to new heights by commissioning a trusted court eunuch, Zheng He, to assemble a fleet and extend the system.
The first of six expeditions sailed in 1405. Unlike, say, the later voyages of Columbus, the fleets did not head into the unknown. They visited ports where Chinese merchants had long been active. Whatever Xi’s speechwriters might insist, these were not trade missions. The fleets were massive–and massively armed.The expeditions aimed to overwhelm local potentates with the grandeur and authority of the Ming court.
When all went well, the expedition’s diplomats gave gifts to the rulers and received ambassadors to bring home to the imperial court. Occasionally, Zheng employed force to defeat resistance; to protect trade along the strait of Malacca, the fleet subdued the Chinese pirate Chen Zuyi in Sumatra, killing five thousand of his sailors. And in 1411, the fleet’s forces conquered Ceylon and installed a new ruling house.
But the point was not what the fleets did abroad, but what they brought back: ambassadors and other evidence that the outside world viewed Yongle as the rightful ruler of China. The riches the armada carried home served the same purpose. Among those treasures were giraffes, which the court prized because they resembled the mythical qilin, auspicious creatures held to appear only during the reign of a virtuous ruler.
The Yongle emperor died in 1424. Except for a final fleet assembled in 1433 under his grandson, the treasure fleets ended with him. With the court’s legitimacy more secure than it had been under Yongle, the voyages were largely erased from history by bitter scholar-bureaucrats until they were rediscovered in the twentieth century.
What can these history lessons teach us about the Belt and Road Initiative? They suggest that trying to understand the project in terms of trade and economics—or even great-power politics—may miss the point: the importance of domestic political legitimacy to the Chinese government.
The notion that a government would sink tremendous sums into voyages with no self-evident strategic purpose might seem implausible. But Americans in particular should recognize how governments facing threats to their prestige and legitimacy might react with an almost wartime mobilization of resources. The United States spent in excess of $100 billion to put astronauts on the Moon after being embarrassed by Soviet space triumphs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Whatever the U.S. government’s public justifications, Apollo only had one goal, as U.S. President Kennedy told his advisers in private: to show that the United States could beat the Soviets at something in space.
Every time a new bridge, railroad, port, or highway is built, Xi will receive his foreign partners’ applause. Each headline that touts China’s sweeping foreign policy will burnish Xi’s claims to world leadership. With rewards like that, why worry if the bridges lead to nowhere?
Propaganda efforts demonstrate the centrality of these themes. In one video produced by China Daily, a White father explains to his kindergarten-aged daughter that he’ll be gone for several days to attend a forum about the Belt and Road Initiative. He compares the project to the treasure fleets’ voyages: “Ships traveled from China through Southeast Asia to Africa, and they’d bring back things, like giraffes.” But the hero of the story is clear: “A few years ago, China’s president, Xi Jinping, proposed making new routes like the old routes. But even bigger.” (“That’s good, Baba!” the daughter exclaims.)
Xi has staked significant political capital on his ability to shepherd China’s emergence as a world power. There’s an irony that the treasure fleets—an effort to bolster the legitimacy of a ruler worried about his job security—now underpin a mythology legitimating a similar effort.
Demonstrating his success to domestic audiences requires visible steps that garner corresponding recognition—both welcoming and wary—from abroad. Western powers may make a mistake if they assume these steps are primarily about them.
Paul Musgrave (@profmusgrave) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Daniel Nexon (@dhnexon) is associate professor of government at Georgetown University.