China, a rising power in the U.S.-led international order, has significantly expanded its global influence since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013. The country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in particular, reflects a more assertive Chinese leadership on the global stage and plays a central role in Xi’s fight for the “great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” Yet the speed at which China has sought to leverage its growing economic power in international affairs has evoked concern. Capitals from New Delhi to London fear that China is challenging the existing global order in an attempt to replace it with a Chinese arrangement. If left unaddressed, these reservations could limit foreign support for the BRI and even generate pushback against China’s global governance efforts.
The international community—including both developing countries and traditional major powers—currently views the BRI through a zero-sum, geopolitical lens. If China’s initiatives are to be successful, Beijing needs to lessen distrust of its intentions by focusing on its domestic aspirations, underlining its acceptance of responsibilities as a major stakeholder in the international order, and highlighting its nonmonetary investments and areas for mutually beneficial international cooperation.
A Focus on Domestic and Regional Development
According to the Chinese government, the primary aim of the BRI is to promote regional connectivity and China’s domestic development, not to challenge U.S. leadership; it sees the BRI as a win-win that will benefit both China and the other countries involved. The initiative was identified as a key priority of the country’s Thirteenth Five-Year Plan (2016–2020). As of May 2017, the Ministry of Commerce estimates that China has invested more than $50 billion in BRI countries since 2013 and Chinese businesses have built fifty-six economic and trade cooperation zones, generating nearly $1.1 billion in tax revenue and creating 180,000 local jobs.
Through the BRI, China seeks to address its imbalanced domestic development by extending projects to the country’s less developed western provinces and addressing issues of overcapacity. For example, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will connect the city of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. Likewise, the China-Europe Railway Express, linking western China to Europe, provides opportunities for further trade and economic ties. The BRI also creates opportunities for surpluses in construction-related industries—such as iron, steel, and cement manufacturing—to be absorbed in Belt and Road regions. In addition, Chinese enterprises can benefit from the new markets, resources, and relatively lower operational costs of BRI countries.
Although many countries along the Belt and Road, including Nepal, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, welcome China’s effort to promote regional cooperation and development, other countries have raised concerns that China will use its rising economic power to reshape the current global economic order to reflect its own interests or to gain leverage over developing countries that owe large debts to Beijing. Indeed, the question of whether China is a status quo or a revisionist power has been debated for years. As Beijing has gradually abandoned its low-profile diplomacy to seek a more prominent and active role on the global stage—including by creating the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, more assertively defending its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and increasing its involvement in multilateral institutions—these questions have once again come to the fore. Given these concerns, China should continue to reiterate that its primary focus is on promoting domestic development.
Reluctant Global Leadership
Western powers, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, appear to be withdrawing from global governance. Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the rise of populism in the United States, and large-scale demonstrations breaking out in some European countries all point to a trend of anti-globalization. In this context, China’s increasing engagement in global governance is being seen as aggressive and opportunistic.
Yet Western powers have long been calling for the country to contribute more to global challenges and to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. And Zhang Jun, head of the Department of International Economic Affairs in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has noted that if Western nations withdraw, a rising power like China could be forced to step in: “If China is required to play that leadership role, then China will assume its responsibilities.” Western observers have made similar comments. For example, Louis Kuijs, head of Asia Economics at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong, has stated that “it is very likely and understandable that China . . . will try to fill those gaps with this initiative, and that is very logical.” From the Chinese government’s perspective, the country’s more active role in global governance, including through the BRI, should be welcomed.
An Alternative Developmental Path
Many outside observers and governments fear that China is using the BRI to promote an alternative developmental path to liberal democracy. Indeed, few would dispute that the BRI helps to amplify the country’s influence and voice worldwide, yet the Chinese government maintains that the initiative does not aim to change the global economic order but is, instead, fundamentally designed to give developing countries access to additional resources, best practices, and expertise. China believes it has more than three decades of experience to share—related to incremental reform, market development, incentive creation, policy experimentation, export-led growth, and state capitalism—and that its unique experiences and institutions contributed to the country’s economic boom.
China has gained confidence and desires to share its development experiences as it invests in overseas projects and to spread its institutional and cultural influence. The BRI provides an avenue to achieve this. In 1994, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce began to train government officials from developing countries. Once the BRI was launched, this training program was integrated into the initiative’s strategy. In 2015, China established the Belt and Road Initiative Scholarship, attracting students from BRI countries who want to pursue professional and academic degrees in China. The Chinese leadership hopes that these less visible efforts will have at least an equivalent, if not greater, impact on foreign views of China.
The government contends that China is building its authority within the global economic order rather than challenging U.S. leadership or actively seeking global leadership. With its increasing influence over global economic issues, China may pursue more political and even military involvement to protect its overseas interests (for example, the Chinese navy assisted with evacuating Chinese citizens from Aden during the Yemen crisis). But these efforts will not conflict with key principles underlying the global political order, such as respecting the sovereignty of other nations, solving conflicts peacefully, and negotiating through multilateral institutions. None of these principles challenges China’s core interests.
In the current world order, China is already an important player; it is a recognized nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. There appears to be little incentive for the country to seek to revise the global political order. In the meantime, there might be conflicts between China and other global powers. But most of these conflicts can be solved within the UN framework. China is certainly behaving more assertively, possibly as a way to gain a higher profile in diplomacy. But seeking a higher profile does not necessarily translate to revising and challenging the status quo.
China is determined to make the BRI successful despite the financial uncertainties and political and security risks ahead. To overcome challenges of strategic mistrust, China should further engage regional and global stakeholders to reassure them of its intentions. At the tactical level, China should not solely rely on its economic largesse to win the support of partner nations. Over the long term, the country will need to highlight the less visible benefits of the BRI, such as the sharing of development experience and expertise, the promotion of regional and global cooperation, and the delivery of more global public goods.
Although China is not yet able to wholly reshape the global economic order in its own image, as long as the country’s economy continues to grow, the BRI will allow China to play a larger role in setting the rules and norms and providing global public goods, especially if developed Western countries continue to withdraw. The ultimate test of China’s future leadership in global governance, however, depends on its ability to win countries’ support of the “China model” of development and its foreign policy approach.