In May 2017, China’s President Xi Jinping convened the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) to mark the grand opening of what some observers labeled the “Project of the Century.” It was truly an historic event.
Launched in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — formerly known as “One Belt One Road” — is an essential element of President Xi’s “China Dream.” Xi sought through the project to transform China from an adapter to a driver of globalization and realize what some have called China’s plan for a “strategic economy.” He intends to tie together 60 percent of the world’s population and a third of its gross domestic product (GDP).
President Xi’s plan has been effectively realized. More than 110 nations and international organizations attended the BRF. Most wanted, and agreed to, become active participants.
The “belt” part of the BRI is the “rebuilt” Silk Road of yesteryear made up of super-fast trains, expressways, and pipelines accompanied by new towns, factory complexes, and more along the way. It will connect China and Europe and what is in between.
The “road” part will consist of new “super” sea-lanes between China and Europe connecting in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia along the way. China has built new seaports, adjunct airports, pipelines, highways, railroads and more along the maritime “road.”
Some call the BRI China’s way to build a new Chinese empire. The model is America’s extensive building effort after World War II. As a result, the US became the richest nation on earth. China wants to do the same. A second, perhaps more important objective is to make China’s rise a peaceful one. In other words, China can climb to global preeminence without fighting any wars — the strategy China’s famous strategist Sun Tzu advised in The Art of War.
But China’s BRI has its detractors and opponents. To some it is an existential threat. Given its Leviathan nature that is no wonder. Of course, the BRI also has its enthusiasts and supporters.
Detractors and/or opponents of BRI included the former Obama administration and what is left of it, including some Obama holdovers; also, the Western media, Europe, India, and perhaps Japan.
Supporters are the Trump administration, Russia, a host of developing countries, and countries along the two routes.
President Obama sought to obstruct the BRI and attempted to persuade US allies and others to do the same. He advised and pressured a number of countries to steer clear of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), that began operations in early 2016, that is a “backup” to the BRI. Obama perceived them to challenge the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund — organizations the US played a central role in creating and subsequently to a large degree controlled.
Obama also found fault with the BRI as it countered his Asian pivot and its economic leg, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. The pivot and the TPP were anti-China and had been conceived to stymie China’s rise and weaken its influence in Asia — which Obama recognized as central to the future of the world and where American influence was in decline.
The Western media has long perceived that China’s rise spells the waning of the liberal Western global order. China does not adhere to the West’s idea of what the world should be and it wants to create a Sino-centric world. The BRI epitomizes that.
Indeed, the BRI will facilitate building China’s “empire” and perhaps the demise of the old Western-built order. The Western media thus questions its purposes and criticizes it whenever it can. It ignores or plays down its huge contributions to global economic development, its helping developing countries, and its abetting global progress overall.
NBC News described the BRI as having the potential to “upend” the world’s geopolitics and economics. The New York Times wrote that “Mr. Xi” would create a “new kind of globalization” that will dispense with the aging Western-dominated system and “bring companies and countries into China’s orbit.”
Much of Europe follows the lead of the Western media, although the UK, Germany, Poland, and several other European countries are “joiners” in the belt linking Europe with Central Asia and China. European countries are envious of China’s financial clout, the fact it has transformed the financial structure of the world from two poles — the Western pole comprised of Europe and the US, and the Eastern or Asian pole, to one centered in China.
So, European countries carp that China’s building the BRI ignores human right and environmental standards. The European Union refused to endorse President Xi’s trade statement made at the BRF because it did not include commitments to social and environmental ideals.
India and Japan are both fearful of China’s rise and consider China to be a competitor for influence in Asia and beyond. Both have territorial disputes with China and both wish to contain China’s growing economic and military clout.
India declined to send an official to the BRF while newspapers in India called it China’s “colonial enterprise.”
In May this year, India’s Prime Minister Modi proposed establishing the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), with support from Japan, to contain Chinese influence on the African continent and enlarge their presence there.
It is likely the BRI will succeed given China’s vast funding and its determination to see the project through, not to mention its ability to build.
An AAGC vision document was published at the time. The two governments proclaimed that their project would be cheaper and have a smaller carbon footprint than the BRI. Japan would contribute state-of-the art technology and know-how in building “quality infrastructure projects.” India would contribute its expertise and experience in working with African countries.
Those supporting the BRI are as important as those who oppose, arguably more important.
President Trump has taken a position diametrically opposed to President Obama’s. He earlier lauded the BRI and sent a delegation to the BRF. He declared that the United States wants to participate.
Matt Pottinger, the designated top US delegate to the project, who is also a special assistant to Trump and the National Security Council’s senior director for East Asia, declared that US companies had “much to offer.” GE, Caterpillar, and a number of other huge US companies are planning to participate.
President Trump sees the BRI as an opportunity for American companies to make money and employ US workers. Trump is a builder himself and sees the project as a positive influence in the world. He also wants better relations with China.
Russia is an enthusiastic participant. President Putin attended the BRF. Russia will benefit from the belt as it will give it access to important transportation routes and that will stimulate Russia’s economy.
Russia, in addition, welcomes the global financial system’s axis shifting ground, China’s buying more of Russia’s natural resources, and more inward investment.
Developing countries support the BRI. They are deeply impressed with the fact China has reduced poverty from 88 percent of its population 35 years ago to 2 percent now. They laud China becoming the fastest growing major country in the world. They are grateful that China in the last decade plus has helped them grow economically with vast aid and investments. Africa, with China’s financial help, has become the second leading area in the world in GDP growth in recent years.
Third World countries also view the BRI as facilitating global trade that will benefit them while it relieves them of dependency on ties with Western imperialist countries.
Countries along the belt or the road are especially happy with the BRI. It has put them on the geopolitical map. It has succored their economic development. It has afforded many of them modern infrastructure.
Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma have in particular benefited economically and in other ways from China building billion-dollar ports, accompanying roads, railroads, and pipelines along the maritime route.
If building the BRI stays on track and does what China intends, it will engender 2.5 trillion dollars in trade among the involved countries. It will contribute immensely to global commerce and economic growth. It will be the project of the century.
It is likely the BRI will succeed given China’s vast funding and its determination to see the project through, not to mention its ability to build. Also, the nations that support it, especially the United States, are more important than the ones that oppose it. Finally, Japan seems to have changed its position of late, due to the Trump administration endorsing it enthusiastically and Tokyo needing China’s cooperation to deal with North Korea’s threats.