Written by Tim Summers.

To great fanfare, Chinese president Xi Jinping hosted a Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on 14-15 May. This brought together delegations not just from China’s neighbours, but from further afield, their seniority reflecting the extent of different countries’ engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative itself and the state of their wider bilateral relations with China. The summit provided Xi with an opportunity to amplify Chinese thinking on the Belt and Road initiative and to get buy-in from others to its implementation. The initiative itself was first introduced by Xi in late 2013, with more detailed objectives set out in a government document in March 2015, setting out broad goals of enhancing connectivity between Asia, Africa and Europe.

Since then, analysts have been grappling to work out Chinese motivations and what the initiative will mean in practice. There are three broad schools of thought.

  1. The first, most common among economists, is that the initiative is an outgrowth of domestic policy challenges, in particular the need to absorb excess industrial capacity, or further develop China’s western regions.
  2. The second also sees economics as the driver, but more in terms of geoeconomics, with the initiative an effort to enhance China’s global economic influence, support the strengthening of its companies on a global stage, the internationalisation of the RMB, or act as a new means of overseas development. Or, from a world systems perspective, it can be seen as the latest shift in the spread of global capitalism, with China playing a proactive role in reproducing globalization, rather than the more passive one it adopted since reform and opening up in the 1980s.
  3. The third perspective foregrounds geopolitics, viewing the initiative as part of a more assertive foreign policy, a revisionist approach to global order, and a longer-term strategy to build Chinese power and dominance – although there is a variant of this which sees Chinese objectives more in terms of building soft power than the harder variety.

To some extent, these interpretations of the Belt and Road tell us more about the world view and mindset of analysts than the initiative itself. For those who see China as a benevolent supporter of global economic development, the initiative is further evidence of these good intentions, while those who read every Chinese move through the lens of empire building argue that the Belt and Road is just a subtle way of pursuing that objective.

How, though, does the recent summit change the way the Belt and Road initiative might be viewed?

Overall, economics was clearly at the heart of the rhetoric and discussions during the summit. Much was made in Xi Jinping’s keynote speech about developments in infrastructure connectivity, citing rail construction in Asia, Africa and Europe. There was plenty of talk of new financing for investing in infrastructure, building business partnerships, and so on. All this fitted with an overall message from Xi that the initiative would bring development to economies which engaged with the initiative, what he called a “road of prosperity”.

But there were some political messages too. Xi himself further described the initiative as a “road of peace”, and identified one of the principles for implementing the initiative as building a “new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation”, a central concept in his approach to foreign policy since 2013.

Moreover, the fact that the Chinese leadership decided to host a summit focusing on the Belt and Road itself places a new political gloss on the initiative. Along with the BRICS summit to be hosted in Xiamen in September, it is central to this year’s “summit diplomacy”, another feature of China’s evolving foreign policy. And while earlier indications suggested that the Belt and Road initiative was at most a loose and inclusive example of “open regionalism”, the references at the summit to setting up a “liaison office” to follow up the forum, along with numerous other specific agreements brought under the initiative, suggest that the prospects of the initiative morphing into some sort of multilateral institution have grown.

Whatever the intentions behind launching the Belt and Road initiative – and most of the evidence suggests these were economic in nature – the implications were always going to go beyond economics to politics. China’s growing global influence, of which the Belt and Road is both consequence and driver, will guarantee that.

Dr. Tim Summers (@tasumm) works on the international relations, political economy and politics of contemporary China. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Centre for China Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, a (non-resident) Senior Consulting Fellow at Chatham House, and consults and speaks on China for a range of government and corporate audiences. Image credit: CC by Official Website of the President of Russia.


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