Carl Michael inspects the underpinnings ofBelt and Road Initiative in his second post for our Emerging Fellows program blog.The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The desire for ‘silk’ provided the impetus for the Silk Road in the millennia past. Without ‘silk’ to be traded there would be no merchants and no customers and therefore there would be no silk road. In our generation ‘silk’ could be considered as the manifestation of highly desired trade goods as well as trade secrets. The underpinning ‘silk’ is also about the people who create it and provide it to others along roads, routes and journeys to distant places.
The BRI is further underpinned by China’s enviable position on the far-eastern edge of the Eurasian landmass, where the bulk of its people and economic might is situated. This position provides the starting point of the BRI, which ends in Europe, on the far-western edge of Eurasia. China’s advantageous location enables it to be both a land power and a sea power. Its geographical location provides it with the potential to dominate the pivot point in Eurasia while having access to warm water ports, a position not available to Russia until the advent of viable Arctic shipping routes. This geographical advantage that enables the BRI is often overshadowed by the focus on China’s economic power. China’s immense geographical size also means that one has to take into account the impact of geography within itself. There is a balance that the Chinese government needs to maintain between its coastal eastern heartland, with its huge markets and wealth, and the orbitals of its far-western inland ‘buffer’ regions which insulate it from the rest of the Eurasian landmass. The coastal areas and central plain have been governed for millennia by strong unified central authority. Ensuring this continuity is a core Chinese geo-political imperative, coupled with ensuring the unity of the entire geographical entity.
The goal to reinstate China's place in the world as a ‘Great State’ after centuries of relative displacement also underpins the BRI. This desire has been accompanied by exercising hard and soft power. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been ploughed into the initiative of becoming the world's premier military power by 2050. This hard power initiative is accompanied by the establishment of foreign military bases as part of the BRl as well as by soft power initiatives in culture, the arts, science and scholarship. At the same time, China's economic power in general and its growing domestic market have acted as a major engine for growth in East Asia making it the most important trade partner for most of Central, East and Southeast Asia. A Sino-centric regional economic integration model is now the reality in most of these areas. All this can be considered to have prompted a converged approach to refabricating and recreating the geopolitical world system covering the entire gamut from physical security, to the global economy and to the global monetary system. To this end it can be observed that China has sown the seeds for a multilateral framework over the last twenty years, challenging the accepted wisdom of the historical Westphalian model, with a thirty-year plan to bring the seeds of a ‘Tianxia’ Chinese model to fruition.
In a broader context, the BRl itself provides an underpinning narrative with which China can hold a mirror up to itself as well as explain its image of itself to others. This narrative could be viewed as being as significant as the BRI itself as it provides inherent meaning to China’s approach to its international relations. To this end the Chinese leadership has invoked the ‘Silk Road’ spirit and emphasised historical, cultural, educational and scientific cooperation and so the narrative of the BRl is clearly understood to be about more than mere economics. This underpinning narrative is crucial to the success of the BRl. In its absence, all the BRI would appear to be is a vast conglomeration of state and market geo-strategic profit-driven enterprises.