Since its launch in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative has been the subject of an extraordinarily lavish public relations campaign, including everything from Chinese-sponsored international discussions to online videos in which adorable children sing catchy ditties praising the Belt and Road’s 'goodness'. More concretely, Beijing has promised nearly $1 trillion in investments in infrastructure projects across the Asian, European and African continents, including highways, fiber optic cables, railroads and pipelines. This has caught the world’s attention, including from countries that are not at the receiving end of China’s proposed investments but hope to get into the new construction markets that its initiative is supposed to help unlock.
In particular, the intense Chinese PR campaign around BRI has managed to create a sense of urgency in Western industrialised countries, where people are increasingly pressing their governments to hop on the BRI train or risk missing enormous business opportunities. As the number of countries endorsing BRI has grown, so too has the sense that the remaining stubbornly cautious ones will somehow be left behind.
BRI’s allure is all the more mesmerizing as tendencies towards protectionism and disengagement are rising across the West, most notably in the principal architect and traditional supporter of the open global system - the United States. Since the Trump administration came to power, liberal democracies around the world have noticed the White House’s signals of increasing inward turning and disinterest in anything that does not put America first. By contrast, Beijing’s sudden brazen embrace of globalisation, proclaimed by Xi Jinping at the Davos Summit last January, where he depicted BRI as the antidote to economic troubles and protectionist impulses, seemed to be a remarkably appealing proposition.
So, why hesitate?
Some observers have expressed doubts about BRI’s economic viability. Politically motivated lending will inevitably produce 'roads to nowhere' and 'white elephants' that yield little value and may also create unmanageable debt burdens for developing countries. Opportunities for foreign companies are not obvious either, as Chinese state-owned enterprises, fueled by state subsidies, gobble up the biggest and most appealing projects, leaving only the crumbs for private entrepreneurs and capital. Prominent experts have also raised doubts about whether China actually intends to invest much of its money in BRI. It is indeed quite possible that Beijing, like a good venture capitalist, has recently been beating the Belt and Road drums more loudly than ever before in hopes of attracting foreign capital and spreading the risks.
In addition to the potential economic risks associated with participation in BRI, there are also geostrategic issues at stake. Even if some dismiss them as overblown and even paranoid, such concerns are genuine. As I discuss in more detail in my book, a close reading of Chinese commentary and analyses on BRI reveals that Beijing’s purpose is as much geopolitical as it is economic. China’s ambition is to establish itself as the preponderant power in Eurasia, reshaping the economic and political map according to its own worldview, in its own image, and reflecting its own unique characteristics, all without provoking countervailing responses from its neighbors or from the West. BRI is Beijing’s main instrument for fulfilling what Xi Jinping described in 2012 as the 'China Dream of the rejuvenation of the nation,' a dream that is for China only. Foreign governments should cultivate no illusion that by participating in BRI, they will somehow be able to shape its direction from within, or persuade China to adopt a totally different course than the one it has set for itself.
Dreams of a seamlessly interconnected Eurasian continent are not new. In the wake of the Cold War Western countries hoped that improvements in physical infrastructure would help to transform the former Soviet states, eventually bringing with it an irresistible wave of sociopolitical liberalisation and democratisation. Along with their investments, the Western powers sought to promote the rule of law, good governance practices, respect for human rights, and the development of transparent and democratic political institutions. Such improvements were seen as critical to promoting regional stability and integrating the Eurasian heartland into the liberal international order. The vision was never fulfilled, in large part because local rulers resisted Western pressures and inducements for reform. It takes more than the promise of roads and rail lines to coax autocrats into accepting liberalization and democracy.
Although China too hopes to foster connectivity, its vision for Eurasia is very different from the 'whole and free' continent that was envisioned in the Western capitals 25 years ago. Beijing does not require recipient countries to transform their sociopolitical systems in exchange for investment. The rhetoric and policies surrounding BRI give priority to 'development rights' over human rights and dismiss universal norms as 'Western values' that must be rejected. In Beijing’s eyes, regional stability means having authoritarian neighbors who share its own concerns about nefarious Western liberal ideas that threaten their grip on power. The Chinese Communist Party’s vision for the region is an outward extension of the model it is applying to its own country, in which the state controls flows of capital, resources, people, ideas and information.
Liberal democracies should push back against Beijing’s attempts to take the ownership of an idea which was meant to give rise to a totally different Eurasian continent than the one envisaged by China. At a minimum, Western governments need to recognise that, if successful, BRI’s outcome would be contrary to both their interests and their values.
Instead of offering more resources for China to sponsor its own vision, they should work to strengthen the efficiency of institutions such as ADB and the World Bank, whose good governance and best practice standards are beyond doubt. Liberal democracies share the same worldview, based on a common set of values that include economic and political freedom, openness, democracy, transparency, accountability, respect for human rights, the empowerment of civil society, and good governance. Instead of worrying about getting on the ground floor of a Chinese-led effort, the US and its European and Asia-Pacific allies should follow India and Japan’s example and start combining their efforts to promote alternatives, either by launching new ones or by revisiting the ones initiated after the Cold War. They should also be more vocal about China’s attempts to deprive concepts such as 'openness' and 'globalisation' of their original substance and meaning.
This is a collective effort that requires Western unity. BRI is not value-free. In the end, the choice that Western governments will make about whether to explicitly engage with Beijing on this initiative comes down to whether they still believe in the values they have upheld, and the order they have fought for, for the last 70 years.