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One belt, one road? China's community of common destiny

One belt, one road? China's community of common destiny

More details emerged over the weekend about two Chinese big-ticket initiatives, 'One Belt, One Road' and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Speaking at the Boao Forum for Asia, President Xi Jinping outlined his vision for the region in a keynote address titled 'Towards a Community of Common Destiny and A New Future for Asia'. 

The Boao Forum, held annually since 2001 in Hainan, has moved from being primarily a business and finance gathering to being regarded as a platform for Chinese leaders to make significant foreign policy announcements. It was attended by leaders from more than 15 countries including Indonesia's President Jokowi, Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. Australia sent its Governor-General and Finance Minister. The Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was also there.

In his speech, Xi Jinping outlined four principles that underlay his vision. To build a community of common destiny, he said:

  • we need to make sure that all countries respect one another and treat each other as equals.
  • we need to seek win-win cooperation and common development.
  • we need to pursue common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security.
  • we need to ensure inclusiveness and mutual learning among civilizations.

The rhetoric is familiar and it is easy to be dismissive. However, this vision espoused by the Chinese President is an attempt to assuage fears among China's neighbours about its growing power and influence. China is not winning hearts and minds through its bilateral efforts, so is now framing its engagement as a shared regional vision. [fold]

It explicitly connects the futures of China's neighbours with China's own future. In doing so, Xi Jinping is trying to convince other countries that their own peace and prosperity will best be secured by becoming even more intertwined with China.

The much promoted 'Belt and Road Initiative' is the hallmark of this vision. There are obviously domestic economic imperatives for the Belt and Road, but it is also being framed as an example of China's regional leadership. Chinese leaders speak of the Initiative as being a 'public good China provides to the world' and the effort of a 'big country' to shoulder 'greater responsibilities'. This is an attempt to demonstrate that China's intentions are benign and should be welcomed.

The Chinese Government knows that its own successful development is linked to the economic growth of others, and that it cannot achieve its 'great national rejuvenation' without peace, stability and growth in its neighbourhood. But countries are becoming wary of being too dependent on China. And China's bilateral efforts in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar are hitting roadblocks. So instead President Xi is trying to reframe China's inroads as part of a regional vision shared by all.

Coinciding with Xi Jinping's Boao speech, the Chinese Government released its 'action plan' for the Belt and Road Initiative. The plan was jointly issued by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce, indicating it is both a domestic and foreign policy initiative. 

Light on details, it purports to be 'open', 'harmonious' and 'inclusive'. It covers road, sea and air transportation, energy infrastructure, and optical cables, removing trade barriers, improving customs clearance processes, cooperation in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, trade facilitation, free trade zones, e-commerce, and renewable energies, to name but a few! For those who want to know more, Xinhua has a dedicated website with links to all the statements, policies, news and activities. 

It appears to be an all-encompassing initiative that basically anything can fit under. Indeed, we will see projects that are already underway being rebranded as part of the 'one belt one road'. And existing financing pledges for development projects will also be subsumed and re-announced.

The Belt and Road Initiative will be financed through a range of mechanisms. The AIIB, the BRICS New Development Bank, the Silk Road Fund, as well as China-ASEAN Interbank Association and SCO Interbank Association have all been explicitly mentioned. The Chinese Government increasingly speaks of the Belt and Road and AIIB together, linking them to its vision of a common (Asian) destiny.

In a clear case of the US shooting itself in the foot, the AIIB now looks like it is becoming a global institution. With the UK joining up, others did not want to be left out. Russia, Australia, Denmark, Brazil and the Netherlands are the latest to signal intentions to join. In addition to jumping on the bandwagon, there has been recognition that commercial and development cooperation interests will be affected by the AIIB and so it is better to be involved to try and influence the bank's investment decisions from the beginning. 

But in signing onto the AIIB, countries have implicitly agreed to support China's regional vision. The challenge will be to make sure that infrastructure investments really are 'win-win'.

Alongside the policies and investments, China wants to embark on a publicity campaign to gain public support for the initiative. So expect to see cultural exchanges, sporting events and 'maritime silk road tourism cruises', being promoted under the banner of the One Belt One Road initiative. 

The initiative is clearly a priority for Xi Jinping. The Central Government has established a special 'leading group' under the National Development and Reform Commission to oversee implementation of the initiative. We should expect to see and hear a lot more about it. China's neighbours will certainly embrace the new economic development opportunities, but time will tell whether they are convinced of China's intentions and persuaded by the 'common destiny' idea.

Photo courtesy of the Boao Forum.

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