“The BRI comes closest to a plan to help mitigate existential threats to the developed world”, Sir Douglas Flint said at a recent talk hosted by British think tank Asia House. The UK’s Special Envoy to the BRI emphasized that this includes “climate change, population growth, and economic inequality”. Today, a few weeks later, he might have added another threat: pandemics.
With the terms of its future relationship with the European Union (EU) up in the air, Britain will say what it must to attract Chinese investment but the point is well made. The New Silk Roads between China, Asia, Africa and Europe are not just about movement of goods. They also offer communication lines, stronger people-to-people bonds, academic exchange and closer cooperation in research, including food security, climate change and public health.
For skeptics this just validates their concerns. An initiative that uses a catchall phrase to reassign hundreds of existing and new projects under this scheme is hard to pin down or be held accountable, causing unease about the CCP’s true geopolitical intentions and growing control of transportation and logistics routes.
President Xi acknowledged deficits in openness, fair tendering and commitment to financial and environmental sustainability at the 2nd Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in April 2019. He specifically pledged the pursuit of more high-quality development and debt sustainability, abiding by national and international laws and regulations on open, transparent and non-discriminatory public procurement procedures, and more efforts to combat corruption.
Some commentators called this a ‘rebranding’, suggesting it’s all about optics. But this is not just propaganda. Too much is at stake for an economy that was already slowing before the coronavirus outbreak. As Sir Douglas put it at Asia House:
“China, I believe, recognizes that gaining international financial support for BRI is dependent upon confidence around the integrities, sustainability and economic validation of individual projects.”
Public discourse about Belt and Road has evidently turned into a tale of two worldviews, dividing stakeholders along geographic and ideological lines. However, a prolonged impasse is not a foregone conclusion.
In Bridges to Everywhere - Connectivity as Paradigm, Parag Khanna makes the argument for connectivity as a world-historical idea like liberty or capitalism. China is placing Belt and Road in that same realm, portraying the BRI as eponymous with connectivity and in line with its stated vision of building a community with a shared future for mankind.
That also correlates with thoughts by renowned Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei (quoted by Parag Khanna):
“Historical models of order have been built on spheres of influence, but a stable global society today must be based on co-creation across civilizations. Such a balanced system is what […] Zhang Weiwei describes as asymmetrical rather than hierarchical. It is one in which maintaining stability requires self-restraint and mutual trust among diverse powers.”
Part of this is a call for the West to show respect and accept China’s rise. Chinese intellectuals have long insisted that the past 200 years were an anomaly and that China only reclaims its rightful place on the world stage. While no power is entitled to its status based on historical merits, China’s phenomenal rise over the last forty years certainly deserves respect. China is now a key global actor and no longer a developing country. But it is still lagging behind in global discourse power. Belt and Road was supposed to change that and it still might.
If connectivity is right up there with liberty or capitalism then it sure won’t go away anytime soon. Belt and Road is its proxy and failure not an option. Given the escalating tensions with the US and the fact that most belts and roads end in Europe, the EU has a role to play in the reset of the BRI.
Europe should reassess its stance and seek an active role in shaping Belt and Road 2.0. Unlike Trump’s isolationist ‘America First’ agenda, Prof. Zhang’s idea of co-creation, self restraint and mutual trust looks instantly compatible with deep-rooted European values. Europeans also favor a more measured response to China’s rise and hold greater sway in persuading Beijing to uphold the rules-based international order and continue opening its system. The question is how committed would China be to those principles if put to the test? A reality-check:
In the years following Xi’s announcement the BRI was seen as ambitious and visionary but also loosely defined and ever expanding. China addressed that lack of a cohesive policy by creating more than a hundred think tanks dedicated to the study of Belt and Road. Beijing also invited global academics, commentators and policy-makers to fill “the amorphous construct” of the BRI with content. This is where the idea of co-creation takes root.
At national level, the concept is firmly embedded in the daily administration of the BRI, which has no formal institutionalized body but one overseeing authority that operates under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). A number of governmental agencies and ministries are in charge of guiding, coordinating and implementing all work and almost all provinces in China have their own BRI implementation plans.
Belt and Road is not about absolute control but guidance and shared responsibilities. And contrary to popular belief modern China has a highly adaptive and consultative mode of governance that allows for flexibility that could be extended to co-creation “across civilizations”.
The EU already acknowledged that the bloc must adapt to the changing economic realities when dealing with China. Both have entered a strategic partnership called the ‘EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation’, an open and dynamic framework for dialogue and collaboration in line with the progression of EU-China relations. This provides a platform for the review of all Belt and Road challenges and opportunities.
Co-creation of the BRI would have to be based on clearly defined interests and principles and a commitment to a more inclusive Belt and Road that meets EU standards. Whatever risks remain should be outweighed by the advantages, not least the collaboration on joint initiatives on public health.
China’s shift to more assertiveness has been a matter of debate for years. Since Beijing managed to contain the virus its self-confidence has surged again, with some official statements raising more than a few eyebrows around the globe. The US is not holding back either. The insults and provocations hurled at China by President Trump and his Secretary of State Pompeo lack civility and seriously undermine the US’ global standing.
Europe, the US and China must work together to defeat the virus and the EU is best placed to take the lead in bringing all parties together. For China this is of particular importance as the ongoing tit-for-tat could further erode international support for its flagship initiative. Belt and Road cannot afford that. Those who stuck with China so far tend to take a more long term view of the BRI and remain convinced that the fundamentals have not changed, that Belt and Road is the engine of regional integration, people-to-people connectivity and a facilitator of economic opportunity for millions along the New Silk Roads. It might even hold the keys to resolving humanity’s shared challenges.
Such patronage is highly valuable but shall never be taken for granted. It is therefore vital to tackle any perceived or real negative feelings head-on.
“Support for the initiative will not come without first addressing negative sentiments”, Sir Douglas said at Asia House. That requires a little humility and self-restraint.
Former President and architect of modern China Deng Xiaoping foresaw the backlash. His advice for China was to lie low as it grows economically. “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”, Deng famously said. That rule still applies.
Co-creation and self-restraint are trust-building measures in themselves but it takes more: the assurance of fact-based, open and transparent communication. If Belt and Road is ever to get back on track, the first priority must be to remove all uncertainty about the origin of the coronavirus and the reasons behind the delayed initial response – full disclosure to get closure.
Next on the list: a verifiable approach to the pledged greater transparency around Belt and Road. This could also help remove the confirmation bias – a major obstacle to broader advocacy. When perceptions of those who seek out information and data are influenced by everything that confirms their pre-existing notions then China can’t win, even if it does the right thing. Take spending for instance.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Heritage Chinese Global Investment Tracker put total spending on the BRI at roughly $340 billion during 2014–2017. According to Bloomberg spending was slightly less, “just $337 billion” or one third of $1 trillion, the most common estimate of total infrastructure investment, in the period until November 2019. The “just $337 billion” may be factually correct but insinuates something else: the BRI is failing. To recap, this is about a staggering $337 billion spent to date. Compare that with the US.
More than three years after winning the election on his promise to remake America, the US president’s infrastructure plan is still on halt. Trump’s latest push lacks revenue sources for almost half the assigned $1 trillion amount – roughly $450 billion proposed for roads, bridges, public transit and much more. Even US Republicans are unconvinced it will ever pass Congress. But no one argues the infrastructure plan is a failure per se. Such sentiment is reserved for Belt and Road and its architect China.
In a multipolar world, cooperation on shared challenges is the only sensible path forward. Although not perfect, the BRI might just be mankind’s best chance to get started and improve as relations evolve. Zhang Weiwei provided the academic foundation and Europeans are beginning to chart the political course along similar lines:
“We face enormous challenges when dealing with China. That is why we need a China strategy. Ideally a Western, but at least a European one, which treats China as partners, competitors and rivals,” Norbert Röttgen, Chairman of the German Committee on Foreign Affairs, said at a recent speech before the Bundestag.
The resemblance is striking. Co-creation is the product of collaboration in the spirit of true partnership. Self-restraint is the favored conduct among competitors who pursue common goals. Both are within instant reach. It’s only mutual trust that remains to be a real challenge between strategic rivals. This demands a commitment to hard work, tolerance, open dialogue and a measure of political pragmatism combined with the aforementioned commitment to fact-based, open and transparent communication.
The EU and China should see the opening in this crisis and re-engage on the greatest connectivity project ever envisioned. The time is now. As the Chinese saying goes: ‘The whole year must be planned for in the spring.’