The New Silk Road Forum was inaugurated on May 15th and 16th 2017 by President Xi Jinping, in Beijing, with all pump and circumstance. Twenty-nine Heads of State and Government and representatives of some 100 countries participated, accounting for 60% of the world’s population. A total of 1,500 participants, including 850 foreigners.
President Xi Jinping announced the “New Silk Road” initiative in September 2013, first in Kazakhstan, then in Indonesia. One year later, the Asian Infrastructure Investigation Bank (AIIB) was created. Similar to the World Bank, it is earmarked to finance infrastructure projects in developing countries. The United States first saw this project as a competing organization of the World Bank – and therefore of their international strategy – and initially opposed it. But in March 2015, 57 countries still decided to join the AIIB as founding members, among them – sign of the times – major European countries including the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
In spite of this apparent enthusiasm, the Chinese initiative continues to raise many questions and no less controversial issues four years after its creation. What is its exact nature? What economic and political goals does it hide? Is it, for China in particular, a means of disposing its surpluses, of securing supplies of primary resources and of extending its political influence over regions of South Asia, Central Asia, Africa and Europe? The West observes the situation with skepticism and some degree of suspicion. While “many experts say they doubt the ability of the communist regime to play the role of advocate of a multilateral trading system,” sinologist June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami warns countries that accept these investments: “What might appear as an opportunity could ultimately trap them in a spider web centered on China” (Dorian Malovic, La Croix, 15 May 2017).
The New Silk Road, an economic and financial initiative: for whose benefit?
By 2013, China had already accumulated $3,500 billion in foreign exchange reserves (over $4,000 billion in 2014), with little or no remuneration. It then reached the conclusion that
Over the last two decades, they built on their national soil hundreds of thousands of kilometers of highway, tens of thousands of kilometers of high-speed railway, thousands of bridges, viaducts, tunnels, power stations, hundreds of ports… China’s industrial capacity remains enormous but its infrastructure needs are decreasing steadily.
Hence, there is a logic, and perhaps a mutual interest, in ensuring that the expertise and efficiency gained in China are used in countries that need it most. Since 2013, China has spent over $50 billion on 56 projects of industrial areas in 20 countries; launched or accelerated the construction of railways in Indonesia, Laos, Eastern Africa and Central Europe; participated in the redevelopment of ports in Gwadar and Piraeus; the construction of airports, motorways. It accompanies infrastructure development plans in Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Vietnam, Poland, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Hungary. It actively pushes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor. Over 100 countries are involved.
In addition to the initial allocations for the Silk Road Fund and the AIIB, President Xi Jinping announced at the Forum the opening of new financing capacities reaching 700 billion RMB (approximately $100 billion). China will spend almost $500 billion on these projects over the next five years. Of course, based on the estimations of the ADB (Asian Development Bank), these efforts are but a limited contribution to the overall investment needs of Asian countries by 2030: i.e. 26,000 billion dollars with 15,000 alone for the energy sector. However, does this mean we should criticize both the initiative, its possible competition with the World Bank and lack of scale? Clearly, China alone will not be able to finance all necessary development investments. But is such a perspective even imaginable, or indeed, desirable?
The Silk Road initiative has a political aim. But which one?
It is probably not a coincidence that President Xi Jinping’s first statement was made in Kazakhstan on the occasion of a meeting of the “Shanghai Club” that some observers considered at its creation as a counterweight to NATO. There is certainly, more or less explicitly, an aim to counteract, if not NATO, at least the “Back to Asia” strategy initiated by Barack Obama. In this regard, it is most interesting to listen to Kishore Mahbubani (马凯硕), the Singapore ambassador to the United Nations during ten years, when speaking in front of the Kennedy School of Government (Institute of Politics, Harvard University) in April 2015: « It’s now in America’s interest to stop aggressive naval patrolling 12 miles of China shores, because, if you do that, 20 years from now, there will be aggressive Chinese naval patrolling 12 miles of California shores.” This initiative, as the speech delivered by the Chinese President in Davos in January 2017, reflects China’s will to project its power and political role in the world.
How does China see its presence and role in the world? In his opening address to the Forum, President Xi Jinping declared: “China will enhance friendship and cooperation with all countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. We are ready to share practices of development with other countries, but we have no intention to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, export our own social system and model of development, or impose our own will on others. In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we will not resort to outdated geopolitical maneuvering. What we hope to achieve is a new model of win-win cooperation. We have no intention to form a small group detrimental to stability, what we hope to create is a big family of harmonious co-existence.” Of course, one can see this as a speech of circumstance, scarcely hiding a desire of domination. But are we really sure about this? Would it not be better for everyone to take the Chinese at their word and judge them on the deeds? Here is what Kishore Mahbubani had to say about this matter in the conference mentioned earlier: “… unlike the US of America, the Chinese do not believe in proselytizing their beliefs. They do not believe that you have to copy or emulate them to succeed. And they also believe that it is far better for people to admire and respect them for their deeds than pay attention to their words. So, in a sense, we will have a very different world when the n°1 power in the world is no longer a missionary power. Or Paul Valéry, in Reflections on the World Today: “Nothing is more difficult for us to conceive, for example, than limitation in the will of the human spirit and moderation in the use of material power. How can one invent the compass, asks the Europeans… [and] not think of sending out a fleet that will recognize and master regions beyond the seas? The same people who invented powder didn’t advance into chemistry, nor did they invent the canon. Instead, they put their discoveries at the service of evanescent tricks and vain amusements of the night.”
The compass, powder and printing have changed the world. And yet, the Chinese who discovered them didn’t realize that they held the means to trouble indefinitely peace on earth.”
Even though it astonishes us, even if it seems counter-intuitive, as little credible as it looks to our Western minds, wouldn’t there be much more to gain than to lose in taking the Chinese at their word? Meanwhile, let’s note that all representatives of the 100 countries present in Beijing took up the same words of “inclusiveness,” cooperation and peace, including Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Significantly, in his speech, Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, wholeheartedly supported the Chinese initiative, which he welcomed as “a new lantern to enlighten the sky.” Christine Lagarde, President of the International Monetary Fund, also considered this initiative as an opportunity for economic and cultural sharing, like the spread of tea in the world.
The Chinese attitude towards the rest of the world is arguably not due to any feeling of moral superiority but rather to the vital stake represented by internal and external stability. For millennia, China’s dark hours resulted from internal strife and external aggression. This immense and diverse country needs order and predictability to prosper. The world sees China as a contender of the American hegemony and history shows us that all wars resulted from the confrontation between ascending powers and declining powers. But China strives to prevent a deadly conflict at all cost. Its guiding principle is stability, the condition of the survival of millions of its fellow citizens.
The New Silk Road is not a well-defined project: it expresses the ambition of a new era of economic, political and cultural exchanges.
Seen from the perspective of the Chinese government, these new silk roads are neither planned, nor defined in advance. They will be what the world will make of them. China launched an idea which, in turn, will take shape based on the provided answers. The concept itself seems evolutionary: from the beginning, the Chinese expression 一带一路 (yi dai yi lu) was translated word by word into English: One Belt One Road (OBOR). During the Forum, the expression “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) was finally chosen, as it conveys both the diversity of routes by land and sea and the nature of the proposal – and therefore a reciprocal approach. These roads will cross countries that will enter the process, whatever their geographical location. The appellation itself, as well as references to the Royal Emissary Zhang Qian (140 BC) and to the seven maritime expeditions of Admiral Zheng He in the 15th century, convey both the openness and the economic, political and cultural dimensions of the project.
Since the Brexit and the American election, China has been propelled to the forefront of the battle against isolationism, as champion of free trade and “happy globalization”. It wishes to participate in the reconstruction of a world economy wracked by crisis since 2008. Its aim isn’t to replace the United States nor the dollar but rather, to propose to the world something Europe hasn’t yet been capable of: a complementary and “inclusive” alternative. This project took the shape of a New Silk Road in Davos, in January 2017.
This is also why China was deeply shocked when Europe refused to grant it the status of a market economy – a position which it believes should have been granted automatically. China also gave a great importance to the French presidential election. The prospect of an anti-European and isolationist presidency in France was viewed as a threat to global stability. Even if its economic and diplomatic weight is now perceived as weak, France remains of strategic importance for China. Throughout its history, France has been able to propose an independent vision and make its voice heard in the concert of nations. China still counts on France for that.
Will France and Europe promote the advent of such a multipolar, interconnected and united world?