Belt and Road: Facing Squarely and Responding to Misgivings from the West

By Wang Yiwei

General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out in his report to the 19th CPC National Congress that with decades of hard work, socialism with Chinese characteristics has crossed the threshold into a new era. It means that the Chinese nation, which since modern times began had endured so much for so long, has achieved a tremendous transformation; it has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong; it has come to embrace the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation. It means that scientific socialism is full of vitality in 21st century China, and that the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud for all to see. It means that the path, the theory, the system, and the culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics have kept developing, blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization. It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.

“The Belt and Road Initiative has offered us an anchor and platform of cooperation and the building of a community with shared future for mankind has provided direction and vision for our cooperation”. This is the most frequently emphasized statement that the author heard at the CPC in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting. Indeed, the Belt and Road Initiative is the most important public good offered by China to the international community. It has demonstrated the Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to navigate globalization and global governance. 

The Belt and Road stands for the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. It has three key words, the first of which is “21st century.” The Belt and Road is first and foremost an integrated and interconnected transportation network of railways, highways, air and sea routes, oil pipelines, power transmission lines and communication networks. The core word is connectivity in which all things and humans are connected, vividly representing the unique features of the 21st century. The second key word is “belt”, referring to economic corridors and economic development belts, reflecting the experience and model of China’s reform and opening-up endeavors. The building of the Silk Road Economic Belt is designed to promote development of all areas concerned by gradually expanding growth and carrying out greater regional cooperation.  The Chinese people believe that accessibility to roads is crucial for getting prosperous and building expressways and ensuring internet accessibility will help people develop in shorter time. The “road” here contains broader meanings. It plays the role of “the Way” in the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, which believes that the Way creates everything as we know in the world. The Way in today’s world requires us to build a community with shared future for mankind. The Belt and Road is open and inclusive so that everyone can make contribution and share benefits.  

It is not hard to understand from the above analysis that the Belt and Road Initiative encapsulates China’s experience of reform and opening up over the past 30-plus years and its civilization and wisdom of 5,000 years. It has unique Chinese characteristics, and such characteristics have shown increasingly strong appeal to other countries and gained global significance. 

It is now quite trendy to include in various international forums the topic of the Belt and Road Initiative, which has become omnipresent when people talk about world affairs and China. However, as it is a newly proposed initiative and China is yet to gain more experience in international arena, there are still many misgivings from the West on the Belt and Road Initiative. “Can the Chinese model be applied overseas? Will open and transparent international rules be observed in pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative? How will the issues of debts, environmental protection and labor be resolved in the process?”These are the questions that the author came across when giving lectures on the Belt and Road Initiative in over 40 countries or participating in relevant forums. 

What are the misgivings all about?

In general, misgivings from the West are mainly focused on the following aspects:

 (I) Misgivings about the world

1. The coming decades are full of uncertainties. As the Western countries are concerned about what the Belt and Road Initiative will bring, they shift their worries about the world and their own future to China and the Belt and Road Initiative because they do not have adequate self-confidence. 

2. Some Westerners use the Belt and Road Initiative as a pretext to make irresponsible and unfounded remarks on China. Though some political leaders with vision and wisdom view China and the Belt and Road Initiative objectively and positively, they are involved in rivalries between different political parties and as a result, China and the Belt and Road Initiative have become a victim of such rivalries. 

3. Has the world really changed? Will China do better than the West?John Keneth Calbraith, an American scholar, once said that the perpetual stupidity of mankind lies in their tendency to regard unreasonable worries as extraordinary wisdom. Misgivings from the Western world on the Belt and Road Initiative stem from their inadequate knowledge and vision in the changing world. They have lamented the lack of vitalities in the West and hence become jealous and angry. And so have some intellectuals in China. 

 (II) Misgivings about China:

1. Misgiving about China’s intention: Does China want to dump its excessive production capacity? Will China change international rules? Some Westerners simply take the Belt and Road Initiative as one of China’s diplomatic strategies to solve its domestic issues and they are concerned that China will not care about how the outside world feels.

2. Misgiving about models: How will the Belt and Road Initiative be pursued? Rules have not been properly followed inside China, so how can it observe international rules? Is the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits too good to be true? 

3. Misgiving about China’s capability: Can China’s models be sustained and applied outside the country? Will China be able to advance the Belt and Road Initiative when its SOEs compete unfairly and its economy is slowing down? Will RMB be strong enough to back the Initiative as its internationalization is decelerating? Cam the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China support the increase of funding which was announced by President Xi Jinping at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation? How to coordinate various funding channels? Can China build an international funding mechanism under the Belt and Road Initiative?

4. Misgiving about outcomes: Will China dominate the world and put in place an order centering around itself? Even if the Belt and Road Initiative is something good, some Westerners still worry that China will reinstate the archaic tribute-paying system when it gets stronger.

 (III) Misgivings about the Belt and Road Initiative

1. Misgiving about its nature: Is it a public good or one of China’s strategies? If it is a public good, then it is expected to help improve the international system.

2. Misgiving about its pathways: Will the Belt and Road Initiative be open and transparent? Will it be rule-oriented or development-oriented? Will there be a level playing field? Will it only benefit China’s government procurement? How can other countries participate?

3. Misgiving about its modalities: What is the financing modality under the Belt and Road Initiative? Will it follow high standards in areas such as environmental protection and labor? What are its relations with existing mechanisms?

4. Misgiving about its effects: Is the Belt and Road Initiative China’s geopolitical strategy? How to resolve regional territorial disputes under the Initiative? Will it lead to discriminatory arrangements?

5. Misgiving about its effectiveness: How will the Belt and Road Initiative address multiple risks, especially the threat from Islamic terrorism? Will it achieve sustainable development?

6. Misgiving about its consequences: Will the Belt and Road Initiative result in a debt crisis? How to make pre-evaluation? The Chosun Ilbo of the ROK argued that the setbacks suffered in the Belt and Road Initiative were a result of expensive construction costs for countries in South Asia, Central Asia and East Africa and of the fact that Chinese companies are in charge of all projects and participating countries, as they cannot share technology or experience, are quite discontented, making the current development of the Belt and Road Initiative quite awkward. 

Why are there misgivings?

In general, there are three main reasons:

First, ignorance and prejudice. The Westerners do not understand the Belt and Road Initiative and lack proper historical perspective asthey simply compare it to the Western examples such as the Marshal Plan. Some Europeans claim that Europe needs to open its eyes to see the world as historically there had never been such a grand cooperation initiative that goes beyond the imagination of Europeans. Therefore, they act with arrogance and prejudice, casting doubts on the Belt and Road Initiative and China. 

Second, worries about the interests and future of the West. Some Westerners complain that China has touched their cheese and are concerned that their influence around the world is dwindling. As a result, they hold various misgivings on the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Third, positions and postures. Those who trust and like China trust and like the Belt and Road Initiative. On the contrary, those who worry about and distrust China do the same to the Initiative. These misgivings show that the West is not comfortable with and not ready to accept a world in which China plays a navigating role and takes lead in a plan as grand as the Belt and Road Initiative.  

General impression: developing countries are interested in what benefits the Belt and Road Initiative will bring while developed countries are concerned about what negative results it may lead to. Japan is uneasy with the leadership role of China and places its hope on a change of mind by the United States and its continued leadership around the world. Europe thinks alike, but Japan has stronger eagerness for that. The Indo-Pacific strategic initiative in particular, which was put forward by Japan as a new version of TPP and accepted by the United States, has boosted Japan’s confidence.   

Psychological analysis:

From a psychological perspective, the misgivings have reflected an old thinking of the West which places self-interest above everything else. 

(I) An outdated thinking:

1. Excessive and unnecessary concerns about long-term effects and possible risks. 

2. Focus only on individual projects. For instance, when there was a suspension of power station projects in Pakistan, those who have misgivings began to worry. 

3. Obsession with past problems: will there be a repetition of the debt crisis like the one in which China lent loans to Venezuela for its oil?

(II) A conflicting mentality: those who have misgivings want to know about the Belt and Road Initiative but don’t want to really understand it. They want cooperation but are afraid that they will only play a secondary role. 

(III) A mentality caused by failed expectation: can China achieve what the United States and other Western countries have failed? 

Some developing countries also hold the above-mentioned misgivings due to the fact that in terms of economic development, they are developing countries, but they follow Western ideology. Even some people in China also echo these misgivings. We therefore must take them seriously. 

We should listen to and follow those objective views and suggestions to improve our work. 

(I) Pay equal attention to how we publicize and pursue the Belt and Road Initiative. By saying “welcome to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative”, we may unintentionally indicate that it is dominated by China. Therefore, it would be better to change it into “welcome to cooperate for the pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative”, which includes cooperation with China as well as bilateral cooperation between countries concerned and multilateral cooperation.  

(II) Implement in real earnest our commitments. We should not take extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits as slogans. As a guiding principle, it must be adhered to in all links. 

(III) Coordinate various relationships. In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, ten major relationships need to be well handled. 

(IV) Strengthen complementarities of the Belt and Road Initiative with the United Nations in a firm commitment to addressing climate change and working for peaceful cooperation while implementing the idea of pursuing innovation-driven, coordinated, green, open and inclusive development.

(V) Tell a good story of the Belt and Road Initiative by working hard to achieve real results rather than win only compliments from others.  

We must resolutely refute unfounded remarks about the Belt and Road Initiative while remaining confident because facts speak louder. The following is the author’s responses to certain misgivings at various international forums.

Misgivings about specific projects: one should not make willful judgment without real understanding. Local people should have the final say. The fact is figures and projects involved in the Belt and Road Initiative have been printed on the local banknotes of Mauritius and Sri Lanka.

Misgivings about debt issues: do not just think about when the hen can be sold to pay for the debt but fail to see that the hen will lay eggs. In the early days of its reform and opening up, China borrowed from the World Bank and Asia Development Bank. The West was worried about a possible debt crisis, but it never happened when China’s economy took off. Do not take a narrow view on debts as economy has its positive externalities and the Belt and Road Initiative is aimed at building industrial chains rather than infrastructure only. China has invested RMB 200 million in every kilometer of its high-speed railways and in total put in RMB 4 trillion in its 20,000 high-speed railways. The ensuing debt, instead of skyrocketing, has boosted rapid development and integration of China’s economy.

Misgivings about standards: AIIB uses US dollars and is committed to the high standard of being lean, green and clean. Besides, it has to be admitted that in some countries and projects, it is quite normal that the high standards of the West cannot be realized. What have the Western high standards brought to local communities? Through development financing and construction of industrial zones, China has been creating and fostering markets in other developing countries and will ultimately help them get financing in the international market and comply with international rules. China’s investment has solved the problem of “which comes first, the hen or the egg”, which the West cannot or will not solve. It has helped the countries along the Belt and Road gain necessary capital for development that lays foundation for future cooperation with Western developed countries. 

Misgivings about the so-called neocolonialism: China has helped Africa in its industrialization and what has been achieved in a dozen years has outnumbered the results of Western colonization of hundreds of years. In addition to sharing the experience of realizing modernization through building networks of high-speed railways, expressways and regional airlines as well as industrialization, China has also engaged in projects for improving African people’s well-being and human rights. 

Misgivings about so-called overlooking human rights: Karachi of Pakistan suffers power shortage every year. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will make Pakistan realize independent energy supply in 2020. What a remarkable achievement that will be!

Misgivings about the so-called export of excessive production capacity: China is working to address the issue of excessive production capacity through peaceful cooperation, not through war as Japan and Germany did during the Second World War. China has learned with success from the models of Japan’s official development aid (ODA) and Singapore’s industrial parks. And never forget that even the term “Silk Road” was first proposed by a German. 

 Seek cooperation while making necessary struggles. Struggles are for solidarity, not for engaging in war of words or venting angers. It has to be emphasized that the Belt and Road Initiative will accelerate the navigation of global capital to infrastructure and real economy so that hot money can be harnessed and put into effective use and blind investment will be turned into result-oriented investment. 

In short, the Western world, which has long dominated global governance, has been uncomfortable with the Belt and Road Initiative for various reasons and held misgivings about it. This is nothing strange. As an initiative of centennial significance, the Belt and Road Initiative is bound to face different voices from the international community. We should respond to them actively and dispel the misgivings. We must refute the unfounded remarks to distinguish right and wrong. Undeniably, a series of new ideas, visions and measures of China, the Belt and Road Initiative in particular, are important international public goods offered by China to the international community. It is China’s plan full of the Chinese wisdom and thinking. Under the current circumstances, the Belt and Road Initiative can play a quite significant role for promoting further development of globalization and nurturing new markets. Through the platform of the Belt and Road Initiative, parties concerned enjoy broad space for win-win cooperation. The West should change its mentality and keep abreast with the times. China and the Western world need to strengthen communication and exchanges, enhance mutual understanding and mutual trust and work together to build a community with shared future for mankind. 

The Belt and Road Initiative indicates that China has completely rejected the mentality that it should follow the Western systems and institutions to catch up with and then overtake them. China will play a navigating role in the world and will never be obsessed with the assumption that the moon is brighter in foreign countries than in China. Actually we now share the same moon, which is the goal of building a community with shared future for mankind. After the Belt and Road Initiative has been proposed, the international community no longer talks about China’s rise in an abstract way. Instead, it focuses its attention on the Belt and Road Initiative. This has extended the historical perspective from spanning hundreds of years to thousands of years and deconstructed the theory that the West always plays a central role in world affairs. In particular, the vision of a community with shared future for mankind has transcended the universal values and called for common values for mankind. 

Development of human history shows that rising of a major country is bound to generate cooperation initiatives and values that steer the future of the world. The Belt and Road Initiative shoulders such a mission.

Wang Yiwei is professor of Renmin University of China (RUC) and a Jean Monnet Chair Professor of the European Union. He is also Director of the Institute of International Affairs of RUC.