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China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Toward a Parallel World Order or a “Community of Common Destiny”?

About the author: Angela Chen (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2024) is a Contributor to Travaux. Her interests center on critical, deconstructive, and decolonial approaches to international law and international relations theories. Angela holds B.A. degrees in Political Science and Philosophy from the University of Chicago, and an M.Sc. degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She is a native speaker of Mandarin and proficient in French.

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Introduction

One of the most notable initiatives of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure is the “Belt and Road” Initiative (BRI), comprised of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” as well as the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” connecting China to countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and, ultimately, Eastern and Western Europe. Although it has yet to take the shape of a comprehensive blueprint, BRI has instigated suspicion and anxiety in the West regarding the intention of the Chinese leadership in proposing such an ambitious infrastructural framework: is China seeking to overturn the existing liberal international order by constructing a viable alternative? Or does China merely wish to expand its strategic space and sphere of influence while adhering to the existing international realities? While it is difficult to gauge the actual intentions of great powers, this article attempts to take a small step at elucidating these problems by examining the key objectives of BRI. Particularly, this article focuses on the discursive and ideational dimensions of BRI, which would throw light on the opportunities and challenges posed by BRI to international law and institutions.

The world’s first encounter with BRI took place months after Xi came into office, articulated in his speech during a visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013. Proclaiming that countries with different cultures and histories could all partake in one common scheme of “peace and development,” Xi asserted that the ancient Silk Road had taken on “new vitality” with the development of China’s relations with Asian and European countries, as China sought to work with Eurasian states to advance the “happiness and well-being” of all people in their shared region. The concept of BRI, or its previous moniker of “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), recurred during Xi’s visit to Indonesia in October 2013 and Premier Li Keqiang’s state visits in Asia and Europe in 2014. Nostalgic connections were drawn between the ancient Silk Road and BRI, harkening back to the Tang Dynasty, when China was the Middle Kingdom: the center of the ancient East Asian tributary system and the world at large. If ultimately successful, BRI will connect over 60 countries along the ancient Silk Road from the Asia-Pacific to Europe through infrastructure projects, economic linkages, and people-to-people interactions. In “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (“Vision and Actions”), Chinese leadership laid out the basic priorities of BRI: policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and a people-to-people bond. Taken together, these five priorities aim to foster connectivity between China and the rest of Eurasia through constructing a large, unified market.

The Geoeconomics and Geopolitics of BRI

In recent years, China has encountered economic bottlenecks that have given rise to the “new normal,” an era of slower economic growth. Structural transformations in China’s economic model became necessary: from an export-led economy to one more driven by domestic consumption. The exigency of a new economic model translates into the need to access resources and markets. In addition to securing access to vital supplies, BRI attracts trade and business opportunities for Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs), thereby solving the overcapacity problem of the Chinese economy.


As such, BRI seeks to tap market potential, promote investment and consumption, and stimulate job creation. Countries involved in BRI could absorb China’s excess industrial capacity, materials, and labor. They would also diversify China’s financial surplus, help increase capitalization, and control domestic investment. China would also be able to revitalize exports as a growth engine for its economy, which would ease the process of structural economic change. BRI projects enable Chinese firms to seek investment projects abroad, which would allow Chinese firms to become more competitive internationally. BRI projects would also permit Chinese leadership to test the ability of SOEs to meet its call for developing themselves to become internationally competitive, and could give large SOEs access to capital from state banks. The use of the Chinese currency, the Renminbi, would also be developed in international markets, which could lay the ground for its potential future elevation to a reserve currency.

Geopolitically, BRI is seen as a pushback against the United States’s presence in the Asia-Pacific. BRI is to some extent a reaction against then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 “Pivot to Asia” strategy, which called for the deepening of American presence in East Asia. BRI also builds upon and has expanded existing inter-state cooperation in both economic and security realms under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and among BRICS (a coalition of five rapidly emerging economic powerhouses: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) members, which would have countered the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before it was scuttled by then-President Donald Trump in 2017. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), as well as BRICS’s New Development Bank (NBD) fund BRI projects and mark a turn away from Western-dominated financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As such, BRI signals a milestone in China’s multilateralization strategy, and might to some extent foreshadow the construction of parallel institutions vis-à-vis the US-led liberal international order.

Telling the China Story: BRI as Narrative

As Xi asserts, BRI strengthens the “people-to-people” bond among partner countries, culminating in a “community of common destiny” and a “shared future of mankind.” Despite their lofty-sounding tone, such phrasings indicate that BRI attempts to reshape international political discourse, enabling China to frame itself in a positive light to a global audience. Indeed, BRI seeks to mitigate the anxiety of China’s neighbors regarding China’s rise through presenting a desirable image of a “win-win” for all countries that cultivate extensive business ties with Beijing The largely transactional nature of BRI’s economic focus is then layered with an almost teleological connotation, illustrated by wordings such as “common destiny.”

The framework of relationalism would inform the ways in which BRI attempts to transform the power configurations of international relations. Relationalism posits transactional interactions between states as the foundation of their interactions. As such, the shape that interstate relations take is the result of processes. Dominant states gain influence through the establishment and maintenance of dense ties, which could induce interest alignment in smaller secondary states, enabling the dominant state to exert influence over secondary states’ domestic and foreign policies. Through this lens, BRI serves as an “influence multiplier” for China, which could reconstitute regional states’ development priorities, interests, and relations in ways that benefit China’s strategic interests. In a similar vein, BRI’s policy emphasis on integration and coordination aims to facilitate policy alignment, boosting China’s influence over partner countries. The push for integration is especially salient with respect to threat perception, security cooperation, and joint training at bilateral and multilateral levels.

The influence-multiplying effect of BRI might paint a picture in which partner countries are lacking in agency, and their actions are thus molded and shaped by Chinese initiatives. On the contrary, the two-way nature of agency means that China is also actively seeking to offer a coherent narrative to persuade and lure its partner countries. Indeed, as China’s assertive foreign policy posture has raised suspicion among its neighbors, China seeks to ameliorate its neighbors’ anxiety and prevent any acts of balancing on the part of its neighbors. Propounding that BRI is “China’s greatest gift to mankind,” Xi posits that the “Asian-style” integration that BRI attempts to facilitate is different from the “European-style” integration as exemplified by the European Union (EU). The former shows a greater extent of sensitivity to national sovereignty, which would be appealing to countries involved in BRI, many of which guard their hard-won sovereignty. The stress on commonality and a shared regional vision represents the “hunt for a common Chinese language.” Indeed, working with countries whose political systems and international visions are disparate from China’s own requires a convincing and inclusive story. Phrases like “win-win” constitute the elements of this story, while the telling of this story is also facilitated by “people-to-people bond,” as well as inter-cultural exchanges, which seek to promote mutual political trust and understanding.

By espousing the construction of a “community of common destiny,” China implies that it has a unique role to play in the development of “political civilization” writ large. The way BRI is sold to participating countries attempts to give China a discursive advantage over other major powers, such as the US, by emphasizing common development over power politics. For instance, the “Silk Road Spirit” underpinning BRI is sold as symbolizing “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit,” which China hopes will draw a stark contrast with what it believes is an exclusive alliance system of the US and its allies. Although there has yet to be any evidence that BRI has indeed altered the geopolitical realities in Asia, its espousal of alternative political norms—such as “a new type of network diplomacy”—might signal its potential to shift the discourse of international relations. As such, delving into the ideational dimension of BRI might allow us to gauge the kind of normative great power China seeks to become, which would have significant implications on the state of international law and institutions.

Conclusion

Now one might ask, how has BRI been received in China’s partner countries? Its reception has been mixed, with anti-BRI sentiment on the rise in some countries. The lack of transparency of BRI projects, the unsustainability of partner countries’ debt loads, the influx of Chinese labor which has overcrowded local job markets in target countries, as well as the resultant corruption and environmental damage in target countries, have raised domestic and international concerns. Although the non-conditionality approach of BRI was its earliest selling point, the absence of democratic oversight and accountability has instigated doubt regarding its long-term sustainability and feasibility. Therefore, while examining the key priorities of BRI from the vantage point of the Chinese leadership could shed some light on China’s intentions and the implications for the international order, devoting more attention to the limitations and setbacks BRI has encountered in its partner countries may open up further insight into this matter.


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