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China’s Belt and Road Initiative will help it become a global superpower

by Kerry Brown
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With China’s increasing prominence on the global stage, Kerry Brown thinks it’s time for a new cross-cultural dialogue

One of the frustrations of dealing with China in the decade after it entered the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001 was the ways in which, almost daily, the People’s Republic was clearly an emerging economic superpower but one that continued to act diplomatically like it belonged to the middle ranks. The two sides of this one story didn’t seem to add up.

Part of this imbalance was due to just how unexpected events turned out to be in this era. In the period after joining WTO, China’s economy entered a period of phenomenal GDP growth. We have to remember the assessments of most on the November evening when, after almost 14 years of haggling and hard bargaining, China became a WTO member. For many back then, the consensus was that China would struggle hard to comply with the terms it had agreed. Its domestic companies were likely to fight against foreign competition. Its very inefficient agricultural sector was ill-placed to take on entry by other players. Its state enterprises, in particular, looked doomed. And this was before even talking about the moves towards liberalising the country’s primitive nascent services and finance sector.

It is clear, as never before, that China is now a global power.

Almost two decades on, the augurs of doom look like they are referring to another place. From 2002 onwards, China experienced double digit growth year on year. No economy of similar size and complexity has ever seen anything like it. The Asian tigers all did their own version of miraculous growth but on a smaller scale. China could truly praise itself and say that it marked up figures unlike any other place on the planet. And it did this while fulfilling its WTO commitments.

Visitors in this era almost saw money growing from the ground. On a visit to Inner Mongolia in 2006, a place I lived in in the mid-1990s when it was regarded as backward, smoggy and remote, I remember the amount of wealth that was visibly being generated in the provincial capital Hohhot from the mining boom. This continued so that the autonomous region as a whole had the highest provincial growth rate in the country over this period. One local county even posted rates of over 40 percent. This sort of breakneck development had last been seen when Shenzhen, named a Special Economic Zone, was transformed from a fishing town in the early 1990s.

What was lacking over this period was a geopolitical narrative that originated in China and somehow communicated how the country understood its economic development and the meaning of this to the outside world. There were attempts to speak about “peaceful rise” in the mid-2000s. But this had limited traction in the wider world. As one observer noted to me around the time the phrase appeared, “it sounds slightly ominous”.  It didn’t catch on.

Since 2012, there has been much greater effort to spell out two things. One is what Chinese leaders, speaking on behalf of their country, think its new prominence means. China is now the largest trading partner to over 120 countries. It can no longer speak like a marginal place. It has to use a different language about its ambitions, one that accepts its prominence but does not sound intimidating.

The Belt and Road initiative sounds like an invitation, not an order.

The second thing is to communicate China’s desire to work with partners in the outside world in positive ways. It is clear, as never before, that China is now a global power. Its domestic challenges, particularly its environmental challenges, are ones that the world relates to and is impacted by. If China fails to address its challenges, that becomes an international problem, not just a local one. This is the privilege, and the burden, of sheer size.

The need to have a joint narrative to stress this commonality and to set out China’s case as a global power everyone can work with has never been more urgent. Something too prescriptive, and people get nervous, worrying about an assertive, pushy China. But saying nothing doesn’t work either. Then people start to assume the worst.

The Belt and Road initiative, and its various iterations, is the most important statement regarding China’s view of its global vision, and the first which is starting to have some resonance in the outside world. There are a number of its attributes that are now becoming clear. The first is simply that it avoids being normative by not laying down rules. The clue is in the title: it is an initiative, not a policy. In many ways, it simply clears away a space for those inside and outside China to imagine or propose, how they make the all important link. Do they want to build infrastructure, manufacture, create brands, or service logistic lines? In many ways, the idea raises questions, rather than setting out clear guidelines.

This has been one of the criticisms made of the initiative. Many, myself included in the last few years, have demanded to know what the content of the idea is. Where is the main budget coming from? Who in China has responsibility for it, and what sort of standards will it be judged against? In some ways, however, while that model might have a satisfying solidity, it falls into the trap of exposing China to criticisms by those eager to see the country look like it is laying down the law to the rest of the world.

If the language of the Belt and Road initiative is indeed the way that China intends from now on to speak to the world, then it falls short of the sort of declarations expected by some who are convinced they see a China bent on global dominance. But it also avoids the pitfall of being seen as devious, barbed and ingenuous. China is speaking about partnership, and asking for a dialogue. The question from now on therefore lies with the outside world. Now they know how China wants to speak, and the sort of things it is willing to speak about, how do they respond? This will be the key quest for the next decade or so as this epic idea develops.

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House. He is the author of “China’s World” which is published by I B Tauris in June.

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