Understanding the Geopolitics of the Belt and Road Initiative
When Xi Jinping assumed the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012, he harboured the dream of “making China great again” and called for the “ great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. This clarion call was made by Xi Jinping as he prepared to lead the nation from the front, and take it to newer heights. Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” spoke about an all encompassing vision for China—a dream that had the potential to allow China to recover its historic sphere of influence along its borders and its adjacent areas and allow her the opportunity to regain its predominant position within Asia and the world. China asserted that the rise of the West was a historic anomaly and it was time for China to reassert her influence within the global comity of powers. Simply put, in the words of Graham Allison, China under Xi Jinping is determined to be “the biggest player in the history of the world”.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), vast in its scope and expanse is a manifestation of this sentiment borne by China’s leader, Xi Jinping. The BRI is a massive infrastructure project that plans to connect Eurasia. Conceptualized by Xi Jinping, it is a $900 billion project that aims to connect China with the countries that lay on the ancient Silk Route along the land and the sea. China wishes to become a maritime power after being a terrestrial power for centuries and the BRI allows China the opportunity to maneuver in this direction. Though primarily envisaged as an economic project, it does have political implications.
Though China continues to be ambivalent about the exact contours of this ambitious project, it is being used by the CCP to gain and consolidate support among the Chinese people. While Xi Jinping aspires to see China’s unabated growth and development and sees the CCP as the potential conduit that will drive economic growth, he sagaciously understands that winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the CCP’s survival and extinction. The CCP is therefore promoting the BRI project within China and across the world as an economic project that will aid economic development within China and outside it – with China’s partner states in the BRI initiative also deriving equal benefits from the project.
This line of thought is only partially true because the BRI intertwines economics and politics, in the garb of economic growth, China is potentially increasing its political sphere of influence. David Baldwin’s Economic Statecraft model fits well within this thought process. Consider this, China is engaging with Pakistan and investing heavily in the state though it continues to face myriads of problems in Baluchistan. For instance, Chinese businessmen have been attacked by insurgents in the restive province in the past, but the government’s involvement remains unabated. China continues to be an all weather ally of Pakistan because provides them with a relatively inexpensive mechanism to harass India. The BRI is thus seen as a potential source of political power that would help China become a great power, reversing the miseries faced by the Chinese during the “Century of Humiliation” (1839-1949) – which most Chinese consider to be a blip in history.
China under Xi Jinping is not only attempting to assuage its domestic constituency but is also trying to create a more favourable rhetoric abroad. She has decided to look back at her civilizational past and used her own theoretical analysis to carve out a stance among the comity of nations. While mainstream International Relations (IR) theories have essentially focused on the ‘state’ as the primary unit of analysis, Chinese IR theory centers around a “world society’. While ‘relationality’ is the principal focus of Chinese IR, rationality is the pivot of traditional IR. China has wisely used her theoretical understanding to explain her position vis-à-vis the BRI. China has decided to transform itself from a state that followed the strategy of Keeping Low Strategy (KLS) to a more fervent strategy of Striving for Achievement (SFA) under the rubric of moral realism. It is a strategy that illustrates a state’s potential to pursue her own security, development and well being and a new framework of win-win for all (gongying) is adopted. This framework has permitted China to make more friends and allies, and China has tried to create an amiable image of herself within her immediate and extended neighbourhood. While China saw herself as the central kingdom who focused on the principles of Tienxia, China was also the benevolent kingdom.
China understands the costs of imperialism and is surreptitiously using the BRI to advance her political influence in the world to counter the United States. It is rightfully trying to modernise herself since the 1970s, but this modernization is occurring atleast in recent years at the expense of smaller states. Howard W. French contends in the same vein that China despite being an economic powerhouse “maintains a false modesty about her ambitions.” It is at this juncture that the moral component in “moral realism” is reduced to ashes and China like any other great power, it can be said, chooses to practice the art of realpolitik. It is this dual character of modern China that symbolizes the rise and rise of China- an ingenuous superpower with bipolarities. While China and U.S. may never collide in a conflict of catastrophic proportions due to the BRI and the impending rise of a resurgent China in the future, the bait continues to dangle in front of them. China is a great power in the making and the U.S. is on the decline, it is difficult to say what lies next. China meanwhile is performing her duty and leaving no stone unturned to make the BRI a success despite all odds. How this crucial development transforms the geopolitics of the world is to be seen in the coming years.
1) Baldwin, A. (1985) Economic Statecraft (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
2) French, H.W. (2017) Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Shaped China’s Push for Global Power (London: Scribe Publications)
3) Small, A. () China Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics (New Delhi: Random House)
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