Written by Marcin Kaczmarski.

Since Xi Jinping’s official proclamation in 2013, China’s New Silk Road has undergone a serious transformation. Initially, the Chinese top leadership offered a rather vague idea and assigned the task of filling it with substance to state-led think tanks and research institutes. The concept has gradually evolved into a fully-fledged political project since then. On the surface, it appears economy-focused, but its significance goes beyond the economic realm. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reflects the way in which the Chinese ruling elite imagines the rearrangement of regional-level international politics, first and foremost in its neighbourhood. There are, however, numerous internal contradictions pervading this vision.

Asia or beyond?

The BRI project is open to any state willing to join. Chinese leaders outlined the prospects for the ‘community of shared interests, destiny and responsibility’ and repeatedly referred to mutual benefits and win-win cooperation as foundational principles of the New Silk Road. The project appears not to be limited to any particular region and transcends the borders of post-Soviet space, Central Asia, South-East Asia and South Asia, reaching out to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. The absence of institutional and legal barriers, flexibility of possible forms of engagement and the informal nature of norms that are to govern the initiative facilitate entry for newcomers.

Still, even though the New Silk Road encompasses different geographical regions, it remains centred on China’s Asian neighbours. The sheer number of routes and corridors designated as parts of the New Silk Road illustrates the relevance of Asia as the major reference point for the Chinese vision. The Silk Road Economic Belt is directed at Central Asian states, while the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is directed at South-East Asia. Beijing added the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor targeting South Asia, as well as the China-Mongolia-Russia corridor encompassing China’s northern neighbourhood. Given the establishment and promotion of other economic and security co-operation forums by China, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the regional focus – on Asia – becomes even more evident.

Doing things differently

The belief in the necessity to do things differently (i.e. different from the United States) underpins the New Silk Road. Official statements consistently rejected the comparisons of the New Silk Road to the Marshall Plan. Chinese leaders emphasised that their initiative reflects a new type of international cooperation and a new model of global governance, distinct from the allegedly hegemonic Marshall Plan, which had reflected a drive at global domination. China’s leaders repeatedly confirmed their attachment to the non-intervention principle and non-hegemonic ambitions. Xi Jinping vowed that ‘China will never intervene in internal affairs of Central Asian countries, seek leadership in regional affairs, or operate sphere of influence’.

The extent to which the Chinese elite regards its vision of regionalism as an alternative to Western models remains, however, unclear. China’s willingness to arrange international politics in a way that is qualitatively different from the Western one stands in contradiction to proposed economic solutions. The bulk of the New Silk Road goals correspond to an enhanced economic collaboration. This is to be achieved by improved connectivity, fewer impediments to trade, initiating financial integration and reinforcing policy coordination. The vision of economic cooperation appears to follow the Western neoliberal script, especially with regard to the need for market integration, coordination of economic policies and the creation of an open regional economic cooperation architecture.

To lead or not to lead

The concept of the New Silk Road represents China’s readiness to lead and to provide an alternative to the American-led international order, especially following Donald Trump’s election as the US president and the resulting growth in isolationism and protectionism. Under these new circumstances, China appears to be ready to step in to defend economic globalisation and exercise regional leadership.

The Chinese elite recognised the New Silk Road as one of the ways to fulfil their global aspirations in a non-confrontational way. In order to underline the benign nature of their initiative, Chinese leaders attempted to ‘internationalise’ the China Dream and transform it into a China-proposed ‘Global Dream’. Zhang Dejiang spoke of the New Silk Road as combining the China Dream with the dreams of peoples in the states along its routes. Phrases such as welcoming all states ‘aboard the train of China’s development’ or inviting partners to create a ‘community of common destiny’ as well as references to the five principles of peaceful co-existence seek to imply that China’s project is beneficial for all parties involved.

As China seeks to coordinate development between those ‘sharing a common destiny’, a new set of challenges may be expected to emerge. A successful long-term cooperation along the New Silk Road may require the application of some universal – i.e., binding all participants – norms. At the same time, the absence of formal rules privileges China as the strongest partner and provides leeway to adapt relations within the regional order according to Beijing’s wishes. It is far from clear in what form other participants could take part in the decision-making process. A loose construction of normative underpinnings allows China to retain flexibility and to follow the bilateral tradition in its foreign policy-making. It is possible that a multilateral component of the New Silk Road remains of a more ritualistic nature, while the actual cooperation is going to remain bilateral and heavily dependent on China’s relationship with a specific leader or a specific country.

Dr. Marcin Kaczmarski (@M_Kaczmarskiis a lecturer at the Institute of International Relations, University of Warsaw. His research interests include Russia’s foreign policy, Russia-China relations, post-Soviet politics, foreign policy analysis and international society. He is the author of a blog devoted to relations between Russia and China, Between Moscow and Beijing. Image credit: Screencap/Youtube.



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