Where Does China’s Belt and Road Go?

According to a report issued by Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, in August, Xi Jinping in addition to his role as Party Secretary, President, Chair of the Central Military Commission, and of about half of the all-important Small Leading Groups which co-ordinate policy, is also China’s “Story Teller in Chief.”

This is evidently not a formal role. But nor is it a completely metaphorical one. At a Politburo meeting convened soon after the new leadership was appointed at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Xi reportedly told his colleagues they needed to “tell the China story.” Around the same time, more publicly, he said that China needed to have a more activist stance about its role in the world. The era of the silent, almost supine Hu Jintao leadership, where the world went into deep angst about what China’s intentions were and no one in the elite leadership in Beijing bothered setting these out, was over. China was now in the mood to tell the world what it believed its story was.

Part of this story, it is now clear, was to assert parity with its key international relationships, and get rid of the idea from the Deng Xiaoping era that China was biding its time and simply keeping a low profile. With the United States, Xi asserted a “new model of great power relations” while meeting President Obama in Sunnylands in 2013. With the European Union, the second largest trading partnership, he declared the two were, despite their manifest differences, “civilizational partners.” Through these new frameworks, the world had been learning that China was in the mood for equality, not deference. And nor was it going to be branded as assertive or pushy. As the world’s second largest economy, Beijing felt it was simply taking up its rightful place.

Unsurprisingly, the region where China has had the greatest challenges in spelling out its new story is the one it inhabits. Despite their clear areas of conflict and complexity, the U.S. and E.U. story were relatively easy to nail down in one simple phrase. But the very fact that since 2013 we have had “new Silk Road,” then “One Belt, One Road” and now “Belt and Road Initiative,” all circling around the same core idea is just one of the more obvious indications of how challenging it has been to spell out China’s story for its closest neighbours. The simple fact is that for this group of partners, countries like Japan, Vietnam, India, and South Korea, if there is one thing they all share in their attitudes to the rise of their huge geographical partner, it is a generous dose of ambivalence. There is good and bad in the resurgent China for them and no easy framework to fit this in.

The “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), whatever else it might be about, is principally an attempt by China to get its regional story right and manage this ambivalence in ways that stand in its favour. The idea is a large and ambitious one, with no one inside or outside China quite sure what it means. So it’s best to start with what it clearly isn’t, rather than what it is. Firstly, it is not a formal, multi-lateral entity like ASEAN or even the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It is not meant to have normative, prescriptive power. So there are no heavy lists of rules about how BRI is going to develop, nor any detailed blue prints. Just a large space that China has opened up for discussion between itself and its various partners about how they can engage better with its domestic economy in mutually beneficial ways. Finally, the BRI is clearly not, in the first instance, a security forum. It is relentlessly focused on economics.

This leads to what it is. First, it is a major attempt by China to create a diplomatic zone around itself where the United States is not present, but in ways in which the United States cannot stand too offended by not being included. As with the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, BRI is part of a strategy to create a world for China where the United States is not ubiquitous. It is also an idea focussed on improving connectivity – through building infrastructure, financial and investment links, and people to people movements and contacts. And, at least in the iterations of the idea from the National Development and Reform Commission and others within China, it is a major attempt to promote understanding, appreciation and respect for China’s culture. None of these can be accused of being overtly assertive or over Sino-centric. But for critics, of course, these attributes can be discerned covertly in the BRI idea. They just can’t currently be easily proved.

If we see BRI as a story, then of course that story is only partially told at the moment. We don’t know where this will end up – and nor does China. What we do know is that China’s leadership has invested great diplomatic capital in it and seems willing to follow this up with cold, hard cash. We also know that some of those hearing the story are not keen on what they are hearing – particularly India. And we also know that in the United States, figures like former Trump advisor Steve Bannon have seen the whole idea as evidence of China’s desire to take America on and claim global pole position.

The one thing we can say about the idea so far is that it testifies to the ways in which China today is an intrinsically global power, and how its influence creeps into areas it has never reached before. BRI is a story we can choose to play a part in, or choose to ignore. But that ignorance will have consequences because this story is not a fictional one. It is taking place in the real world. And like it or not, it will have an impact because the key players – the Chinese – clearly want to believe the story they are telling the rest of the world.

Dr. Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London, and an Associate on the Asia Programme at Chatham House. His most recent book is ‘China’s World: What Does China Want’ (I B Tauris, 2017).