Chinese Premier Xi Jinping presents his country as a leader of globalisation by encouraging other countries to abandon their isolationist policies and unite against global challenges such as terrorism, nuclear arms, and global warming.
In January of this year, in Davos, Xi Jinping made it clear that Beijing wants to be a global leader in infrastructure. Central Asia, however, is the first place that can serve China’s geostrategic interests. If an ambitious program for the establishment of transport corridors between the People’s Republic of China and Europe were to succeed, China would become the main economic and diplomatic power in the world.
Background on the Initiative
The concept of the New Silk Road was first presented to the public by President Xi Jinping in September 2013 during a visit to Kazakhstan. In October 2013, during a trip to Indonesia, he presented the parallel initiative of a 21st century maritime Silk Road.
By the end of 2014, the authorities of the PRC created the financial framework for the Route. Xi Jinping declared the creation of the New Silk Road Fund with a capital of 40 billion dollars. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, set up in November 2014, will be an additional source of financing.
The Chinese want to create a free trade zone with Asian and European countries, promote financial integration, and cultural education programs that would connect people in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Reasons to Be Afraid?
Some call this project the Chinese Marshall Plan, but Beijing rejects this comparison. They argue that they strive for integration without drawing new dividing lines, but merely focusing on achieving economic growth.
Americans, who are most threatened by Beijing’s ambitious plan, are worried that Beijing will use it to implement its imperial foreign policy objectives. In their view, the Chinese are striving to transform the international system in such a way that China becomes the world’s greatest power.
Washington argues that Beijing has ambitions to build networks of non-Western international organisations in which China would play a major role if not a dominant one. Washington wonders how Beijing will cope with competition from India and Russia, which also want to play an important role in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project covers about 65 countries that represent 60% of the global population and one-third of global GDP.
An Unfair Fight
The Chinese Development Bank has allocated $890bn to about 900 projects. Analysts are sceptical and doubt whether the Asian giant could become a global trade leader.
However, they also warn that an integrated world trade system in which the ruling Communist Party of China defines rules could pose serious risks and hidden costs. The EU Ambassador to Beijing, Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, recalled that EU companies have repeatedly complained about unfair market access in China. “The Chinese market for investment is not as open as the European market for Chinese companies,” he said.
The question of the consequences of China’s growing international presence is central to the debate on the future of the Western liberal international order. This question gained momentum following the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, which the Chinese have survived best of all major actors and thus significantly shortened the distance between themselves and the United States.
The extent to which Chinese ruling elites are ready to adapt to the existing political and economic liberal order will have far-reaching consequences not only for China’s neighbours from East Asia or Central Asia but also for European countries.
A Diligent Student
Many describe China as a power that is learning international politics. The concept of the New Silk Road, as well as the AIIB, show that Western ideas have greatly influenced the Chinese vision of international order. Regardless of its historical past, modern China cannot separate itself from the outside world.
Over the last two decades, China has engaged in cooperation with multilateral institutions on a global and regional scale. Beijing is increasingly practising multilateralism, with its rules and norms. The key feature of the New Silk Road project is its openness and its desire to maintain Chinese access to external markets. Therefore, the purpose of Beijing’s design of the route is to prevent regionalisation of world trade and to stop attempts at creating barriers that isolate any given region.
Such attempts include both the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and the Russian Eurasian Economic Union. At the same time, China is eagerly imitating the United States: trying to shape and change others, as well as the rules they have created themselves.
China is learning from the West how to be a superpower and behave like one. Both the AIIB and the Silk Road Fund are attempts at “positive” international behaviour. The question of the permanence of the international order vision, embodied in the concept of the New Silk Road, remains open.
According to the existing rules of succession in the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping’s reign will last until 2022, and it is likely he will realise his vision in this time. Other leaders will mould Xi’s ideas into their own doctrines. However, it must be borne in mind that the previous Chinese vision, presented by Deng Xiaoping, proved to be very resilient to change, shaping China’s behaviour internationally for more than 30 years, despite the fact that his individual successors added their own interpretations to it.