There is a sense that the BRI is more than just bricks and mortar, that it is about more than economic gains. It is a '21st century reimagining of historical trading roads', writes Sholto Byrnes
Make no mistake, China's Belt and Road initiative is a huge opportunity
Who will provide global leadership, facilitate trade and growth and contribute to new norms and rules in the coming decades? When it comes to the Eurasian continent, it is obvious that a great power is rising (or, more correctly, that an old power has risen again). And while it will be accompanied by many partners, it is that one country whose trajectory will be most important to making “the Asian century” a success for all – China.
One of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature policies towards that end is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which combines a land “economic belt” and a “maritime silk road” that will link China with Southeast, South and Central Asia, the Arabian Gulf, North Africa and then finally with Europe.
The World Bank estimates that it will encompass 30 per cent of the global GDP, 62 per cent of the world’s population and 75 per cent of currently known energy reserves.
China’s Belt and Road Portal says that the initiative already has the support of more than 100 countries and international organisations, with 50 countries having signed co-operation agreements, while China has built 56 economic and trade zones so far in 20 BRI countries. Ambitious is a word frequently used to describe it. It is an understatement.
For the Gulf region, the BRI will have knock-on and multiplier effects, an issue China’s state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi addressed at the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing a week ago, which resulted in the approval of the declaration of action on Sino-Arab Belt and Road Cooperation.
Industrial parks, ports, new economic zones, the digital economy and increased mutual investment: these are just the beginning of the kind of collaboration that it is hoped will bring “win-win” results for all parties involved.
It is important that they do so – and that means that all countries need to look after their own interests carefully. Closer to China, it is entirely natural for smaller states to have a degree of wariness about the rise of a power in their neighbourhood for it suggests that the current status quo will not survive.
Change, even if it is entirely justified, can still be disconcerting and the case of Hambantota Port, in which Sri Lanka agreed to hand over to Chinese state-controlled firms after struggling to pay back multi-billion dollar loans from China, has sparked some talk of “debt-trap” diplomacy, although China’s Global Times newspaper pointed out this week that “Beijing agreed to offer loans considering the long-term friendship between the two countries and Colombo's call for development… China cannot be blamed for Sri Lanka's debt quagmire".
But then for all the BRI’s talk of “a community of shared interests and destiny”, “mutual learning and benefit”, “mutual political trust, economic integration, and cultural inclusiveness” – all of which are welcome and may be quite genuine – it is not a charity and nor is the associated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
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Normal prudence, feasibility studies and long-term planning must be applied to proposed projects, as they would to any others.
Yet there is still very much the sense that the BRI is more than just bricks and mortar, that it is about more than economic gains. One leader who attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in May last year put it somewhat lyrically, writing that Mr Xi’s vision of a new silk road was “a 21st century reimagining of the historical trading roads that linked East and West, bringing spices and precious goods, knowledge of culture and scholarships to lands far apart.
"It was a civilising process and it was a time when the kingdoms and empires of Asia knew that both the treasures of the counting house and the treasures of the mind are best enriched through commerce and discussion, rather than through war and enforced and unequal treaties.”
Yes, there is an air of cultural exchange, even of historical mystique and the vista of centuries, about the Belt and Road too. How could there not be, when it regularly references the ancient silk road, which instantly conjures up images of desert-roaming caravanserais, trade in priceless jade and lapis lazuli and long-vanished dynasties and khanates?
Let those thoughts linger briefly while considering another nod to antiquity – one that casts a less than flattering light on China’s intentions – the so-called “Thucydides Trap”. But just because a Harvard professor, Graham Allison, coined a catchy phrase encapsulating the idea that conflict between a rising power and an established one might be inevitable, that does not actually make it so.
Another US academic, Arthur Waldron, countered in a review of Mr Allison’s book that America and China were not “destined for war”. He dismissed Mr Allison as having “caught China fever, not hard around Harvard, although knowing no Chinese language and little Chinese history”.
He concluded: “Perhaps not war, but cultural and political synergy, is what is, in fact, ‘destined’.”
So certainly look at the BRI with the same eye one would apply to any trade and cooperation agreement. But do not make the mistake of not seeing it for what it is – a huge opportunity; a challenge for Asia and Europe to forge a new relationship for the 21st century and a truly appropriate model for the continents to proclaim the benefits of working together when others are withdrawing behind the self-defeating parapets of protectionism.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia