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The Belt and Road, and the pandemic detour

An important book illustrates the different hopes and dreams of partners to Beijing’s big infrastructure drive.

Ed Robertson/Unsplash
Ed Robertson/Unsplash

Book review: Daniel Drache, A.T. Kingsmith and Duan Qi, One Road, Many Dreams: China’s Bold Plan to Remake the Global Economy (London, Bloomsbury, 2019).

The economic fallout of the pandemic has been global, but not equal. If the often-necessary lockdowns have uniformly resulted in economic damage, it seems clear that the longer-term impacts on national economies will be determined by a host of factors: success or failure in containing the virus and preventing subsequent “waves”, quantity and quality of stimulus spending, and speed in vaccinating the population. Enduring changes to our working and living habits may also effect, for better or worse, any given country’s terms of trade.

In sum, the growth trajectories of national economies are being reset, and with them the relative strengths and weaknesses of countries in the emerging “new normal”. The open question is how well nations adapt to this new environment. To what extent are the strategies of the pre-2020 past still fit for purpose?

In the half-decade preceding the pandemic, the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s strategy to reorient global economic development in its favour – quickly became a major factor in the economic plans of dozens of mostly developing countries. Most obviously, by financing big-ticket infrastructure projects – dams and coal plants, railways and bridges. Less obviously, through the construction of China-centric supply chains and the promotion of Chinese standards on a growing range of activities, from finance to electricity to data.

How the BRI changes in response to the pandemic matters to China, its partners and its competitors.

The significance of the BRI, however, remains deeply contested. The vast initiative has been something of an inkblot test. More than a few contributions to the voluminous literature on the topic reveal more about their authors’ perspectives than about the BRI itself.

Shedding light on the BRI is the objective of One Road, Many Dreams: China’s Bold Plan to Remake the Global Economy, written by Daniel Drache, A.T. Kingsmith and Duan Qi. The title is a play on the Chinese term for BRI, “One Belt, One Road”, and President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of national rejuvenation. Released in 2019, the book’s BC (Before Covid) publication date does not detract from its relevance today.

The pandemic, a harsh test of national strengths and weaknesses, is also an ongoing stress test of transnational projects which rely not just on the movement of goods and workers across borders, but also on the health of bilateral relationships. In this context, One Road, Many Dreams amounts to a detailed snapshot of the BRI as it was when the world stood on the precipice of pandemic. This provides a useful baseline for examining subsequent developments.

The authors are well-placed to provide an empirically grounded assessment of the BRI’s political economy. Drache is professor emeritus of political science at York University, Canada. Kingsmith was at the time of writing a political science PhD candidate at York, and Qi is assistant professor of economics at Beihang University, China. They aim to “introduce BRI to the non-China specialist by providing concrete examples of the many projects marking the growth of this initiative”. In this, the book is successful. True to the old maxim that “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics”, the authors go deep into the financial and legal architecture of the BRI.

The book is divided into two main parts. The first, “China’s deep-pocket pragmatism”, examines the BRI model of infrastructure development, the asymmetric “bilateralism” of BRI deal-making and the central role of Chinese state-owned banks in funding projects. The second, “Beijing’s vaulting global ambition”, widens the lens to consider the BRI’s broader impact on global politics and governance. An afterword, “Towards 2049”, reflects on the future development of the BRI.

World Intellectual Property Organisation Director General Francis Gurry with a representative of the Chinese government in May 2017 sign an agreement for closer collaboration in the field of intellectual property concerning the Belt and Road Initiative (WIPO/Flickr)

The authors have amassed a remarkable wealth of detail on the “nuts and bolts” of BRI transactions, while also providing vital historical and economic context on why China is advancing this particular model of cooperation – and why it has found so many willing partners.

For example, the BRI has been broadly criticised for the low environmental and labour standards of many projects. Drache and colleagues explain this as a consequence of the preferred approach to BRI transactions, dubbed “narrow ledge contractualism”. The authors contend that this approach clearly – and narrowly – defines the obligations of Chinese parties to BRI agreements, in effect shifting “attention away from green proactive environment principles, human rights protection and stronger work and employment standards”. Sustained criticism of this approach has resulted in various initiatives to “green” the BRI. With over 15,000 BRI contracts estimated, achieving better environmental and social outcomes will be a mammoth undertaking.

This book succeeds in bringing “badly needed scepticism” to the analysis of the BRI.

The authors are somewhat less sure-footed when drawing sweeping conclusions not necessarily grounded in the book’s analysis. Their claim that “the Belt and Road initiative is firing on all cylinders” jars with the decidedly mixed picture of costly trial and error that otherwise emerges. Equally, the assertion that it “should be evident by now that globalism has entered a new and dangerous, unpredictable phase as liberal internationalism unravels” perhaps reflects the chaotic days of the Trump presidency more than the evidence presented in this book. This is not a book about liberal internationalism, which may well prove more resilient than its critics assume.

Overall, however, this book succeeds in bringing “badly needed scepticism” to the analysis of the BRI. The authors find “little that is altruistic about Beijing’s investment blitzkrieg and much that could be called transactional, hardball investment tactics to get the best deal possible”. However, as they also note, “it is more complicated than that”. This complexity lies partly in the “many dreams” of the countries which have signed up to the BRI. Their perspectives are naturally different to those of Beijing’s elites – or opponents.

Written into the Chinese Communist Party constitution in 2017, the BRI is likely to remain Chinese policy for as long as Xi Jinping remains paramount leader, and perhaps longer. One Road, Many Dreams makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of this sprawling agenda.

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