“Belt and Road Initiative”—China’s Proposition to Promote Common Modernization

By Yao Peisheng

In his speech at the United Nations Office at Geneva in January 2017, President Xi Jinping stressed that, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is to achieve shared and win-win development. On the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation that May, he put forward that, “the Belt and Road Initiative is a great undertaking” and we will make this project of the century benefit people across the world . Those statements once again shed light on China’s objective in introducing the Initiative, and expressed China’s sincere wish to head for modernization jointly with other countries around the world.

Drastic global changes require all countries, large countries in particular, to take up their position and play their due role. In the last decade, with the world plagued by a sluggish economic recovery, and the West troubled by widespread populism, isolationism and protectionism, unemployment, refugee crisis, terrorism and wealth gap have been seen as the “evil consequences” of globalization. Some large countries, instead of seeking solutions in a cool-headed manner, have acted in such a self-concerned approach that they have resorted to an isolationist policy in disregard of other countries’ interests. As a result, thoughts have been put into further disturbance, and many have lost confidence in global governance.

Confronted by complexities and uncertainties, China has been calling for exploration of a new approach to global governance, and has been offering its own solutions to the “future direction of international relations”. At the High-level Meeting on Building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind through Wide Consultation and Joint Contribution held in Geneva in January last year, Xi Jinping elaborated on China’s solution to global governance, the core of which being mutual respect and win-win cooperation. As is known, the global financial crisis that started from the United States in 2008 was a 9/11 equivalent for economy. It rippled across every country in the world, thus China was also hurt by the resulting global economic downturn. However, this crisis is quite different from the one in the 1920s and the 1930s in that a global catastrophic blow was avoided thanks to China’s supportive role in the world economic system. Starting from 2016, the world economy began to recover, though in a weak way. And the chances of another crisis are slim, since the worst times are over.

Statistics indicate that, emerging economies were pivotal in tiding over the crisis. China alone has contributed over 30% to global economic growth. The biggest highlight of this century is that China, once one of the poorest countries, has become a pillar of the world economy. China is still five to ten times less advanced than the ten most developed countries in terms of per capita economic strength, but it has linked up its own development with the world’s development instead of advocating “China First”. Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” presents China’s responsible character as China cares about the world and provides solutions for thorny issues. China has lived up to the name of a solution-provider and enabler in global governance. Such attitude has helped win applause from the international community. 

The essence of the Initiative is China joining hands with other countries for common development. I agree with the view held by some Chinese scholars that the “Belt and Road Initiative” equals to common modernization. By a glimpse of the officially-published plans and visions concerning the Initiative and Xi Jinping’s speeches in and out of China, people can tell that, China has been appealing to the international community to abandon outdated philosophies and growth patterns that used to prevail in the conventional sense of modernization and to open up a path for common progress. The rationale behind the proposition is that, in their development, developed countries uphold the supremacy of their national interests, the law of the jungle, and game of power, control the leadership in global governance and enjoy the benefits of development exclusively. On the contrary, China advocates mutual respect, cooperation and win-win outcome among countries in the new era, solutions through consultation, and shared benefits.

Of course, common modernization is not equal to starting at the same scratch line or bridging development gaps in a short term. China’s position is to unite other countries on its way forward, especially developing countries, respect each other’s choice of political systems, strive for economic balance, exchange needed goods, conduct cultural exchanges and acknowledge cultural diversity. The position meets the needs of the time. In my mind, “common modernization” is an objective, and at the same time could be seen as a basic principle of China’s proposal.

As a unique platform for international cooperation, the “Belt and Road Initiative” is China’s great exploration in dealing with peace and development issues. Though risks and challenges abound, there are more opportunities and favorable conditions for success.

1. Recognition by the international community is a critical guarantee. Xi’s Initiative has been included into a United Nations resolution, and many countries have inked cooperation deals with China under the “Belt and Road” framework. This is unprecedented in the modern history of international relations.Last May in Beijing, many distinguished guests from China and abroad attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, where all participants expressed their willingness to take an active part in the implementation of the “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” and reached new broad consensus with China. At the Forum, Russian President Vladmir Putin pledged his full support to the BRI and voiced his hope to build a great Eurasian partnership by integrating the BRI with the Eurasian Economic Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is noteworthy that Matt Pottinger, special assistant to the U.S. President, said that, “U.S. firms are ready to participate in Belt and Road projects” , and the U.S. has set up a Belt and Road Working Group. The positive change in America’s position should be given due attention, as the circumstances are forcing the U.S. to take seriously the practical cooperation with emerging economies represented by China.

The established developed countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Canada, generally hold a positive attitude towards “Belt and Road”. Japan used to make carping comments when the BRI was first proposed, but reversed its position last year. Most countries in Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia and Central and Eastern Europe have, on bilateral and multilateral occasions, expressed their intention to actively participate in the BRI. The BRI’s attraction lies not in China’s glowing praises but the fact that everyone stands to gain through this platform.

2. The continuous rise of China’s comprehensive strength is the motive power behind the implementation of the BRI. Forty years of Reform and Opening Up has witnessed a turnaround in China’s strength. China used to rely on imported goods, equipment, technologies and foreign investment. But now, China is capable of providing state-of-the-art equipment, technologies, civil-use goods, and vast amounts of capital. For example, in building infrastructure, China can design and manufacture most of the necessary heavy equipment and has in many ways overtaken developed countries including the United States. Speaking of the speed and quality of infrastructure construction, China has topped the world. For instance, China’s engineering teams can build high-speed railways, expressways, and transport facilities of all sorts in the most extreme natural environments and with the most complicated geological conditions. According to Chinese experts on high-speed railway, China is even able to link Beijing and New York with a high-speed railway, not to mention building Beijing-Moscow, Beijing-West Europe, and Beijing-South Asia railways. Infrastructure building, a pillar of “Belt and Road” projects, is exactly China’s area of strength.

3. A solid foundation has been laid for the success of the BRI. The “Belt and Road Initiative” was not proposed on a whim, but as a result of historical development. In fact, in the early 1990s, shortly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China began its discussions on reviving the ancient Silk Road with newly independent countries in Central Asia. Negotiations then mainly focused on concrete issues such as improving the capacity of bilateral rail, road and air transport, and expanding trade, but systemic topics including policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds were also touched upon in practice.

From the 1980s, China has gradually set up bilateral or multilateral trade cooperation mechanisms with other countries on the Eurasia Continent, Southeast Asian countries in particular. And the BRI intends to integrate those existing mechanisms into a larger platform. In the last four years, the BRI has had some early harvests. From 2014 to 2016, the trade volume between China and countries along the route of the Belt and Road registered over three trillion USD, and China invested over 50 billion USD in those countries. Chinese companies have established 56 trade and economic cooperation zones in more than 20 countries, creating 1.1 billion USD in tax income and 180,000 job opportunities for countries involved. It is thus fair to say that, the Belt and Road platform is a public good offered by China, which also facilitates cooperation between other countries on this platform.

4. China’s dual role as the largest product consumer and the largest product exporter will do good to cementing the foundation for cooperation under the framework of the BRI. In January 2017, Xi Jinping announced at the United Nations Office in Geneva that, “In the coming five years, China will import eight trillion US dollars of goods, attract 600 billion US dollars of foreign investment, make 750 billion US dollars of outbound investment, and Chinese tourists will make 700 million outbound visits.” Xi’s remarks once again demonstrated China’s willingness to exchange needed goods with other countries on the basis of equality and mutual benefit. By contrast, some countries are a bit “selfish”, in that they desire only selling and no purchase. In fact, the future for asymmetric trade is increasingly gloomy in a globalized era. China has repeatedly declared that, any cooperation approach, especially trade, should be reciprocal. China indeed has a huge export volume, but it is at the same time a huge market. China is willing to exchange needed goods in accordance with international rules. It is known that, in the past five years, the Westernization trend of Chinese consumers’ lifestyle has led to a growth spurt in the consumption of high-end consumer goods from overseas. China’s per capita GDP stands at nearly 9,000 USD, and will reach somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 USD in ten years. By then, China will have become a larger market and a paradise for the world’s consumers and investors. Therefore, China’s growth as an exporter and market will for sure spur the in-depth development of “Belt and Road” cooperation.

5. Incorporation of pursuing the BRI into the Constitution of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is the political guarantee for the success of the BRI. The 19th CPC National Congress convened last year laid out a clear blueprint for the future three decades of China’s development: domestically, China will eradicate poverty and become a great modern country till the mid-21st century; internationally, China will champion the development of a community with shared future for mankind, and build a harmonious world with lasting peace and shared prosperity. China’s development achievements since 1949, particularly since 1978, have fully demonstrated the appeal, cohesiveness and maturity of the Communist Party of China. Writing the BRI into the Party Constitution proves the extreme importance that the CPC attaches to the BRI. It is expected that the BRI will be pushed forward across-the-board since the CPC regards the development of the BRI as its key objective.

6. Chinese companies are more resilient in front of challenges and risks. In the development of the BRI, companies are the major players and the new forces in linking up Chinese and foreign stakeholders. Some have succeeded, while some have failed. Some Chinese experts lay emphasis on the risks and challenges when they talk about the BRI, and they call on decision-makers to give more consideration to the risks and challenges and weigh the pros and cons. They are well-intentioned in doing so because some regions along the route of the Belt and Road face political turbulence, terrorist activities, currency depreciation and regime changes. Any company should be well-prepared because no one wants to run into any trouble overseas. However, I think risks and challenges will not prevail although they are inevitable.

In a word, the BRI is building up its attraction and offering positive energy to settle problems. Having demonstrated China’s sense of responsibility and its invaluable philosophy of cooperation and win-win outcome in the New Era, this unprecedented cooperation platform deserves the name of an effective platform for building a community of shared future for mankind. We are fully confident about the prospects of the BRI.

Yao Peisheng is Former Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.