This piece is the second installation of a two-part series on the Chinese One Belt, One Road strategy. To read the first installation, click here.
Since Chinese President Xi Jinping first unveiled it in 2013, One Belt, One Road (OBOR) has only grown in importance as a Chinese policy goal. The comprehensive trade and infrastructure development initiative enjoys great enthusiasm in China, but the government’s notorious lack of transparency has kept other countries guessing at the true motives behind the project. In this case, however, China’s underlying interests may be closer to its stated goals than the international community might expect. Using OBOR, China hopes to shape its global image into a new model of benign hegemony, a great power that uses its influence to benefit, not suppress, other countries.
According to the Chinese government, OBOR is “President Xi Jinping’s plan to connect Asia and Europe by borrowing the concept of the historical Silk Road,” a plan that will include a “Silk Road Economic Belt” – One Belt – and a “21st century Maritime Silk Road” – One Road.
Chinese sources stress the widespread benefits of the initiative for all countries involved and downplay the underlying benefits for China itself. OBOR is portrayed as a magnanimous gift to the surrounding region, not a means to dominate it. The official website of the People’s Republic of China lists the beneficiaries of OBOR as “4.4 billion people, 63% of the global population, a collective GDP of $2.1 trillion and 29% of the world’s output.” Chinese professor, writer and foreign affairs specialist Dingding Chen similarly stressed the altruism driving OBOR: “China does not seek to become a hegemon in Asia and beyond,” he argued in a November 2014 article in The Diplomat. “Instead, by helping other countries develop, China hopes to achieve a ‘win-win’ situation between it and other partners.”
But statesmen do not craft policy out of pure altruism. China’s reluctance to reveal the true interests behind this major diplomatic offensive has engendered a range of speculations among the international community. After all, there must be a reason for “pouring huge investments into low-return projects in high-risk countries,” in the words of a June 2015 publication of the European Council on Foreign Relations. For instance, China has put billions of euros into the Greek port Piraeus, “the most important investment in Greece in the last decade” according to former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. Though it will facilitate Chinese-EU trade, the deal appears to disproportionately benefit Greece and appears risky at a moment of great financial instability in the country. Such a willingness to pursue connectivity projects speaks to Chinese determination in advancing OBOR and suggests strong underlying motivations.
The potential benefits of OBOR for the Chinese can be approached from two different angles – geopolitical and economic – although the quest for global soft power also plays a vital role.
From a hard power-driven, geopolitical standpoint, OBOR will undoubtedly enhance Chinese influence throughout the Eurasian continent, most notably in strategic areas like Central Asia. Despite China’s benign rhetoric, foreign policy experts in other countries have interpreted this move as a forceful pushback against other powers’ presence in China’s neighborhood; mainly a challenge to Russian and US power in the region. Though this sort of interpretation of OBOR is inherently grounded in the zero-sum assumptions about international politics and misses possible interpretations from other perspectives, it likely contains a degree of truth. The Chinese may not be primarily motivated by the desire for regional hegemony – government officials have stressed that OBOR is not a “tool of geopolitics” – but other countries’ perceptions of China’s goals can reify this power politics interpretation. Though the Chinese have publicly discouraged others from approaching OBOR with an “out-dated Cold War mentality,” such attitudes could easily arise, stirring up fear and defensive actions in countries that feel threated by China.
At its core, OBOR purports to be an economic initiative, aimed at increasing trade throughout the Eurasian continent through enhancing both physical connectivity – transport infrastructure – and monetary flows, all facilitated by the new and controversial Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Chinese scholars have stressed a desire to help “rebalance” the global economy, implying that Western economies “were responsible for the global economic and political imbalances that led to the global financial crisis.” Professor Su Hao of China Foreign Affairs University described OBOR as “a strategic bridge between two complementary economies,” referring to those of Asia and Europe. But even from an economic standpoint, these sorts of statements inherently challenge US power, though not necessarily intentionally. OBOR works to solidify Europe’s recent reorientation toward Asia, which implies turning away from its traditional ally—the US. From the outside, it is difficult if not impossible to fully grasp China’s internal logic, but the fact remains that other countries’ perceptions of and reactions to OBOR matter as much as Chinese intentions.
Perhaps the most holistic interpretation of OBOR is captured by the argument that China wishes to become a “new type of rising power,” an appropriately broad statement that reflects the many goals folded into OBOR. This official position echoes throughout Chinese press and rhetoric: China as “a country that has learnt from history and intends to break the pattern of the rise of global powers, creating a new precedent of peaceful rise.” Hao has called China “a giver, not a taker.”
The sheer volume of such public statements put out by Chinese academics and officials suggests that at the heart of OBOR lies a quest for soft power. Perhaps China genuinely seeks to enhance trade in the region for the benefit of all, but a more nuanced interpretation suggests that China recognizes the importance of moral sway for boosting its global status. For instance, in addition to building transportation infrastructure in Central Asia, China has been striving to win favor in the region by providing services like the Confucian Centers, which offer grants to Kazakh students to study Chinese or topics related to China. Confucian Centers have been gaining popularity in Kazakhstan over attending Russian universities, traditionally the popular option.
The Central Asian example shows China building up a positive reputation to complement its quest for economic leverage. At the moment, according to Foreign Policy magazine correspondent Reid Standish, “China doesn’t have the same type of soft-power credibility that a country like Russia or even the United States has in Central Asia.” But its active pursuit of such a status suggests that OBOR is as much about shaping China’s identity in the world as it is about concrete economic or geopolitical goals. Of course, all these factors come together to help China achieve the status of an alternative, superior model for a world power and to legitimize its growing hegemony in its neighborhood by stressing good intentions. For instance, responding to comparisons of OBOR to the Marshall Plan, Chen pointed out that the Chinese initiative is much more ambitious and, crucially, has no strings attached to the development aid it offers but is “aimed at achieving a ‘win-win’ outcome for everyone.”
Such statements reveal the true intent behind OBOR, at least from a public relations standpoint. Setting itself up in opposition to past and present superpowers like the US and Russia, China can point to OBOR as an example of purportedly developing infrastructure and trade around the world with no hidden agenda, ideological goals or other “strings attached.” Whether or not China will be successful in this soft power campaign depends on the overall success of OBOR, which will dictate how other countries respond to increased Chinese presence in their own regions.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.