Belt and Road as a Strategic Initiative
Jabin T Jacob (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, National Capital Region, and Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.
Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order by Bruno Maçães, New Delhi: Penguin Random House, 2019; pp xii + 227, ₹ 599.
This is an elegantly written, eminently readable book on a subject that has garnered much attention in recent years, namely China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese project is often still described as an economic or infrastructure development project, but Bruno Maçães lays out, in no uncertain terms through multiple examples, that this is a grand strategy initiative by Beijing intended to do nothing less than cement China’s position in the world as its pre-eminent power in all senses of the term.
Maçães opens by offering a framework for understanding the BRI from a Chinese perspective using the ancient concept of tianxia (literally, “all under heaven”). Tianxia is a way of ordering the world in terms of relationships between constituent units—kingdoms or states—based on mutual benefit. But, this is also a system in which there is a clear understanding of the fact that some units are more powerful than others, and that those that are weaker should know their place and behave accordingly. Naturally, China is at the top of the heap in this system with the Chinese emperor as the “son of heaven” expecting respect and allegiance from all other political entities around China.
The idea of using tianxia as a framework for understanding the BRI is not new. This reviewer used the expression, “new tianxia” to describe the BRI as early as 2014 after attending a series of conferences on the BRI organised by Chinese state authorities starting in late 2013.1 But, I also have no hesitation in acknowledging that it is Maçães’s work that conveys the idea not just in finer prose but with greater verve and impact.
The concept—embodied in the BRI language of “community of common destiny”—encompasses the belief that China, as the largest power (or hegemon), will serve as the benign arbitrator of disputes between lesser powers while offering all plenty in terms of economic largesse, and also staying out of their internal issues unlike the West and its hegemons like the United States (US). But, there are consequences—it is China’s role to be the master of fate of countries, and as Maçães points out, “The ideological question—as opposed to the economic one—is inevitably zero-sum because to accept a certain way to organize social relations is to discard different concepts and principles” (p 33). Thus, the BRI “is the name for a global order infused with Chinese political principles and placing China at its heart” (p 30). And, it is this unchangeable political reality that those seeking to do business with China ought to grasp, and work harder at preparing their responses to.
Transnational Industrial Policy
This Chinese global order naturally also involves China at the centre of global supply chains, “reserving for itself the most valuable segments of production and creating strong links of collaboration and infrastructure with other countries, whose main role in the system will be to occupy lower value segments” (p 30). One would be hard-pressed to find a more pithy yet accurate description of Chinese intentions anywhere. Another example of the author’s great grasp of the meaning and intent behind China’s rhetoric and language worth highlighting is when he states “‘International industrial capacity cooperation’ is China’s way of preserving state guidance in a globalized world” (p 102).
The book also scores, especially in its deep dive into Chinese elite thinking, with a selection of quotes from important functionaries in the Chinese government as well as from academics and analysts inside the country. This close-up look offers more than just a bland reiteration of obeisance to the ideas of China’s political supremo and Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary Xi Jinping, who launched the BRI in 2013, while visiting Kazakhstan and Indonesia. Rather, these views also offer a degree of insight into plans and objectives as well as a view of the commitment to the BRI that is otherwise unavailable from the bland texts of speeches by the CPC leaders.
This is not to say that there are no voices that stray from the standard discourse. Indeed, former Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei is quoted saying things that are interesting simply for the fact that it is in the exact opposite direction that current Chinese policy seems to be heading, both in word and in deed. Take, for example, his quote, “Many Chinese have this war mentality and believe the country’s food security will be endangered if war breaks out” and his calls for China to import more food (p 76). While the BRI too encourages greater import of food, this is not to say that Chinese leaders are any less insecure or that they see this import as a way of committing to free trade.
Quite to the contrary, China has continuously sought to shore up its control over key natural and other resources as a way of ensuring its security from blackmail and dominance enough to hold others to ransom. Thus, on the one hand, its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are engaged in seeking control over productive agricultural lands in foreign countries as well as over important companies at the cutting edge of research and development in agriculture. Thus, it has sought to buy up major foreign companies or those engaged in such research, or, if this approach failed, attempted to coerce or simply steal from them. And this approach has extended to a variety of industrial sectors, notably telecom, where the current US sanctions against Chinese major Huawei, are a reaction against precisely such Chinese tactics. On the other hand, China has also sought to restrict access by foreigners to its key industries, companies and resources—a case in point is its attempts in 2010 first, and now in 2019, to restrict the sales of rare earths to Japan and the US respectively by way of retaliation over political issues. Meanwhile, there is also the case that China’s strategic community is making for an expanded Chinese military presence around the world to protect the BRI investments—an analysis of the military implications of the BRI is one that is conspicuously absent in the book.
To continue with economic issues in a section which is by far the most enlightening part of the book, Maçães underlines the fact that China’s attempts to break into high-tech industries is an extremely difficult task. Previously, China simply moved into those sectors of production vacated by countries that were moving up the value chain of production. What it is now attempting to do is to compete with countries that are not yet ready to let go of their dominant positions in key technology sectors. It is for this reason that the US, as mentioned above, and a host of other developed economies are now countering Chinese attempts to buy, steal from, and generally undermine their top tech companies. Still, the Chinese economic system also comes with the advantage that it is a system based on capitalist production supported by massive state capacity and will—and the BRI is the latest and perhaps the greatest expression of this capacity and will. China’s ambition is nothing less than to create its own value chains for products that will compete against those of the developed West. As a Chinese analyst, the author quotes, puts it, the BRI is the “first example of ‘transnational’ industrial policy” (p 81).
Impact on South Asia
From a South Asian perspective, an account of a document jointly brought out by China’s National Reform and Development Commission and the China Development Bank on developing the BRI in Pakistan (pp 98–102) will be particularly interesting to Indian readers. The idea appears to be nothing less than a complete penetration and takeover of the Pakistani economy in the belief that China’s rising labour costs can be countered by relocation to Pakistan, but interest also ranges from agriculture production to fibre-optic connectivity, though, elsewhere, the author perhaps ascribes too much credence to the viability of fuel travelling through pipelines from Gwadar and across the Karakoram Pass into China with the help of “ultra high-power pumping stations” (p 64). In the process, the Chinese seek to replicate their economic model of government control over the economy in Pakistan. Two points here are worth highlighting.
The first is a general point about the Chinese desire to promote their version of economic development around the world through the BRI. This economic development model is, of course, as much a political model in which the state (or in the case of China, the CPC) exercises total control over all aspects of economic and political life, and provides economic growth and meets people’s expectations of the good life under the condition that they give up any desires for political freedoms and liberties. As the author points out, the BRI “calls for universal values of new kind” (p 181).
Also, as part of this process, there is no real distinction between the private and public sectors in the economy; in China itself, it has now become mandatory for all private enterprises to accede to state/party interests and the large ones all have party units that might remain in the background, but are quick to suggest course correction when things fall out of line and possess a number of means to ensure compliance.
The second and more specific point is about the actual progress of the BRI in Pakistan. As this reviewer has pointed out elsewhere, there is really very little record of any significant employment being generated in Pakistan by the BRI, and there are complaints galore about not just the financial viability of many projects but about active discrimination against Pakistani enterprises in many cases (Jacob 2017b: 86–91).
Maçães’s description of possible world scenarios as the BRI develops and plays out is instructive, but an argument might be made about how, in too many things, China is, in fact, only aping the US. In fact, the critical failure of China and the BRI might be that it lacks an imagination of its own, one that is not about competing with or beating the US or about preserving the CPC in power at all costs. From an Indian perspective, though, it can appear that what China has achieved despite these limitations raises significant questions about not just resources and state capacity in India, but also about the will and vision in the political class specifically and among the citizenry more generally.
If one had to quibble, one would point out how many quotes do not have sources provided or that headings in the chapters could have added to the reader’s experience. But, these are minor points in what is a fine and comprehensive book on the BRI. This is a volume that should sit on the shelf of every serious student of Chinese foreign and economic policies, and will be a hard act to follow.
1 These views were presented in a series of seminars and conferences in August and September 2014 (at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, and Cheena Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, West Bengal respectively) and February 2015 (at the University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram) before being eventually published in an edited volume (Jacob 2017a).
Jacob, Jabin T (2017a): “China’s ‘New Tianxia’ Strategy and the Indian Response,” Foreign Policy and Security of India, Josukutty C A and J Prabhash (eds), New Delhi: New Century Publications, pp 141–59.
— (2017b): “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Perspectives from India,” China & World
Economy, September–October, Vol 25, No 5, pp 78–100.