China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Awakening the Dragon

China’s stupendous economic resurgence over the past four decades never ceases to awe, but what has captured attention in recent years has been the country’s international awakening. Against a nasty backdrop of intensifying populist nationalism, right-wing radicalism and trade protectionism in many advanced economies, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s surprising 2017 Davos speech shook the world with its staunch message in support of economic globalization. He proclaimed, “To grow its economy, China must have the courage to swim in the vast ocean of the global market … China took a brave step to embrace the global market.” Quoting the likes of IMF Chief Christine Lagarde and Red Cross founder Henry Dunant, one of his key messages was the need to develop simultaneously “a dynamic, innovation-driven growth model” and “a balanced, equitable and inclusive development model”.

 

Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world

Napoleon Bonaparte

2018 marks the fifth anniversary of his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the modern-day evocation of the ancient maritime Silk Road that connected Asia, Africa and Europe. The ‘belt’ refers to overland corridors through the Silk Road Economic Belt and the ‘road’ consists of the maritime shipping lanes forming the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. From Southeast Asia to Europe and Africa, and extending even to South America, BRI now includes 71 (and counting) countries accounting for 50 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP, and concerns not just trade but four other broad areas of policy coordination, facilities connectivity, financial integration, and people-people bonds. Already, Chinese companies have poured over USD 50 billion of investments and launched a spate of major infrastructure and development projects along these lines, though not without facing criticism and backlash from opponents accusing China of propagating a Chinese ‘Marshall Plan’.

 

While the calculus of the BRI’s domestic and international effects is complex and as yet inconclusive, what is certain is that this initiative will continue to be a core part of China’s foreign policy, with the March 2018 removal of the constitutional two-term presidential limit at the First Session of the 13th National People’s Congress (which sits for 2018-2023). President Xi and his ideology – of which a prime tenet is to support China’s ambition to be a ‘nation with pioneering global influence between 2035 to 2050’ and the delivery of a new world order with Chinese characteristics – have also been enshrined in the country’s Constitution, a feat elevating him to the status of Chinese Community Party (CCP) founder Mao Zedong. The longevity of Chinese government policy can no longer be questioned – if, indeed, it ever was.


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