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What alternative futures face the BRI?

Posted By Carl Michael, Thursday, July 2, 2020

Carl Michael makes assumptions about the alternative futures of Belt and Road Initiative in his seventh blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

The future of the BRI will be shaped by factors both inside and outside China. China’s future geopolitical, economic and social conditions will have a significant impact on the rest of the world. Before one considers whether the BRI will be complete by 2050 or not, one must consider what alternative futures are plausible and probable, and the factors which influence those alternative futures. Some factors which impact the future will not change very much. Among these are the rate of technology change, China’s geographic position, the inherent logic of Eurasian integration and China’s demographic destiny. Its aging society and decreased birth-rates will have a major impact on the potential of workforces in China and the world, with consequent impacts on economic competitiveness.

 

Environmental stress and changing climate will impact not just China and Asia but the Arctic and the wider world. Currently unviable areas could open to further economic exploitation and some current areas may no longer be economically viable. Environmental stress in turn will trigger population movements within and between nations which could be accelerated by growing economic inequality. In both China and in other nations a significant percentage of the current rural population would have migrated to cities, transforming both China and other nations into predominantly urban states with megalopolises poised to change internal political dynamics. The interaction of contributing factors such as these will impact the future of the BRI directly as well as indirectly. The Eurasian littoral has become increasingly crowded as the visible face of the hegemonic ambitions surfaced by the advent of the BRI narrative. Consequently, the concept of the Indo-Pacific has been adopted as a balancing mechanism and narrative in both economic and geopolitical space. The fault lines between the two narratives is where conflict has the greatest ability to impact the future of the BRI.

 

In addition to horizon scanning, the following sections will consider alternative futures for the multifaceted BRI at the macro level using a two-axes scenario technique. The axes are based on two key factors selected as having the most impact on the future, which is considered in terms of interaction between the two factors. The first of the factors used will be ‘Globalisation vs. Nationalism’. Globalization refers to the trajectory of the international economy and global geopolitics. ‘Nationalism’ refers to the ways that countries other than China promote their own long-term future interests. The second factor will be ‘BRI facilitates vs. BRI impedes’. The combination of factors is presented as two axes encompassing four plausible positive future scenarios. These are used as lenses with which to view possible futures unfolding over the period to 2050. The four future scenarios that will be covered in the next sections are: ‘The BRI facilitates globalisation – A Converging World Order’, ‘The BRI impedes globalisation – A Continuing World Order’, ‘The BRI facilitates nationalism – A Conflicting World Order’, and ‘The BRI impedes nationalism – A Constraining World Order’. It should be noted that these scenarios are objective and plausible caricatures and it is quite probable that components of one may be fused together with another.

 

The hope is for a BRI which ennobles mankind in the broadest possible sense and the fear is that the drive to ‘complete’ the BRI could end up sowing loss and division. The evolution of the BRI and any effective response to it will require radical geopolitical changes. The goal of presenting the scenarios which follow will have been achieved if they are seen to be plausible, address the fundamental fears of all concerned yet leave room for hope in the image of the future.

 

© Carl Michael 2020

Tags:  Belt and Road Initiative  China  economics 

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Does technology impact the BRI?

Posted By Carl Michael, Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Carl Michael inspects the impact of technology on Belt and Road Initiative in his fifth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

The term technology covers the development and utilization of technical capabilities in relation to people and the environment. Technologies are material and non-material or digital inventions that have enabled human beings to survive, thrive and advance. They ought not to be considered in isolation from the era or the societies in which they exist. For instance, some experts consider that were it not for the development of the chariot, China itself as a unified entity would not exist. Such is the impact of technology on society. Continuing on this note, if one considers the very concept of the state as a ‘technology’ in its own right, one can define a state as the sum of human endeavour in the production of economic, military, social or artistic outcomes. Extending this train of thought, one can consider the state or the BRI to be a ‘network’, and one which acts within a global network.

 

The evolution of the BRI must be considered in the context of political technologies such as states and intra-state activities. It should be acknowledged how these technologies interact with other cutting-edge technologies and the resulting evolution of governance. In this macro-context, national or civilizational interactions are part of a complex technological network. When insights from complexity theory and network theory are incorporated into one’s perspective, the evolution of the BRI and its vision can be viewed in a new light. This provides a viewpoint which could be useful when considering how technology impacts the intentions driving an initiative such as the BRI. The economic future of China is technology dependent and effective utilization and transfer of technology will be at the heart of the BRI. Further to this, as BRI members develop, there will be greater demand for advanced technologies, wherever they come from.

 

For China, technology and success are almost synonymous and the ‘Made in China 2025’ strategic plan is the blueprint for China’s intent for seizing leadership in advanced technology. It is a world leader in digital payment systems and the intent is to surge forward in ICT, artificial intelligence, robotics, high-speed railways, biotech and medical technology, pharmaceuticals, space technology, renewables, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, nuclear energy and military technology. To fuel this surge China needs access, one way or another, to commodities from developing countries or cutting-edge technology from developed countries. The BRI presents China with opportunities to use its accumulated capital to increase its ability to control and optimise global value chains on favourable terms for developing and exporting its technology.

 

The danger from the current global crisis has showcased China’s strategic biotech capabilities. Chinese leadership in other key technology sectors can be noted from its young, large and ambitious technology workforce, its recent accounting for a third of a space-launches, its pushing ahead with ambitious plans for cleaner and safer next-generation nuclear power, and its acknowledged strength in 5G telecom networks and digital platforms. With this in mind, we can see that China’s ‘Technological Tianxia’ will be one of fast, technologically driven economic and social change with a centrally managed approach, including the use of technology for military and power-projection. The speed of this change is considerable. China took just over a decade for over a billion people to double industrial output per person. In comparison, the UK took well over a century and the US took about half a century. The technology driven vision of the future will be a distinctive factor for an imagined community such as the BRI and this vision will be driven by Chinese technology prophets, entrepreneurs, influencers and venture capitalists.

 

© Carl Michael 2020

Tags:  Belt and Road Initiative  China  technology 

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What is the institutional base of the BRI?

Posted By Carl Michael, Friday, April 3, 2020

Carl Michael reviews the institutional base of Belt and Road Initiative in his fourth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

The primary institutional base underpinning the BRI is provided by the three interlocking branches of political power in China. The Communist Party of China (CPC), the State Council and the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). The CPC continues the long tradition of a unified Confucian ruling entity, which seeks to represent the interests of the whole of society, in comparison with a Western-style political party approach. Chinese governments are expected to cope with the challenges posed by a huge population and vast territory, ostensibly shaping a political culture characterized by valuing a longer-term vision, a more holistic perception of politics which places high value on the country’s overall stability and prosperity. This single-party approach, embodied by the CPC, is often contrasted with the impact of change of central government every few years in multi-party democratic systems as well as the national chaos following China’s 1911 revolution which sought a Western political model. The CPC exercises oversight of the BRI through the Central Foreign Affairs Commission.

 

The State Council on the other hand is the chief administrative authority in China and it exercises authority over the BRI through cabinet-level bodies such as Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce which is responsible for foreign trade policy and agreements and foreign direct investment. These bodies and their predecessors were instrumental in China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation.

 

Chief among the financial institutes which underpin BRI activities is the government-owned China Development Bank (CDB). It is one of the most powerful banks in the world and has been crucial in transforming China’s economy and competitiveness. Even though other national development banks have financed political projects and favoured industries that private investors would eschew; never has such an institution existed with so much capital and financial capability with control delivered into the hands of one body, the CPC. The rise of Chinese capital availability overseas is an ever-increasing trend facilitated by the CDB which specializes in financing infrastructure, energy and transportation. In this it is complimented by the Exim Bank of China which specializes in financing trade, investment and economic cooperation; and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, whose starting capital and credit ratings have made it a rival to the World Bank, ADB and the IMF. In addition to these banks, the government-owned Silk Road Fund fosters increased investment in countries participating in the BRI.

 

Any understanding of the institutional base of the BRI would be incomplete without considering the role of the Chinese PLA, which is the largest military force in the world. The recent growth of the PLA’s global power projection capabilities and strategic nuclear missile capabilities has been noteworthy. Local conditions in many BRI areas are highly unstable and scenarios where China may require the PLA to protect its interests beyond its borders are not unrealistic. As China’s growth has moved it along the path to becoming a true maritime power, so also has the PLA navy expanded its global reach with the acquisition of aircraft carriers, carrier-killer missiles and overseas bases. The perception of the PLA as being the armed wing of the CPC means the PLA’s deployment abroad is extremely sensitive in nature.

 

There is concern regarding the rise of a global player with an institutional base such as China’s. The justifiable unease in many parts of the world arises from the links between its national mission, power projection capabilities and political system. If this unease is not alleviated, the BRI could be perceived as a neo-colonial form of tributary diplomacy even as China works to reinstate its rightful civilisational place in the world order.

 

© Carl Michael 2020

Tags:  Belt and Road Initiative  China  safety 

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How does the BRI fit into history?

Posted By Carl Michael, Friday, March 6, 2020

Carl Michael inspects the historical roots of Belt and Road Initiative in his third blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

The ancient version of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ‘Silk Road’, would not have existed were it not for the domestication of silk-moths in China as well as the domestication of horses and Bactrian camels in Central Asia. From a historical perspective, China is a country which has the longest continuous history of any of the great ancient civilizations. It has preserved its culture and writing system over three millennia and continues to evolve energetically. The ‘Silk Road’ provided China with connections with other civilisations and for centuries there were periods of being open and being closed to the influence of Central Asia, as demonstrated by the existence of the ‘Great Wall’.

 

Some of the earliest recorded accounts of the ‘Silk Road’ relate to armed expeditions from China to adjoining areas during the Han dynasty period. Later accounts from the Jin dynasty era were recorded by the monk Faxian, who travelled by both foot and ship between China and India. Faxian’s writings show that the ‘Silk Road’ provided major trade, cultural and religious connections between states all along the routes. Subsequent accounts of travel by the scholar Xuanzang during the Tang dynasty era show how important the ‘Silk Road’ was in the heart of Asia, though its importance subsequently declined for economic and political reasons. Trade focus then slowly shifted to maritime routes during the Song and Yuan dynasty eras when control of Central Asian regions became weaker in comparison with previous eras.

 

The advent of the Mongol empire was like a whirlwind which disrupted not only the ‘Silk Road’ but the heart of Asia and China itself. The disruption created a free flow of people, ideas and goods which stemmed from the flexible Mongol cultural, political and economic model and this integrated the heart of Asia as never before. The Mongols forcefully unified diverse people groups and integrated them into a new global power system centered on the Asian heartland instead of the coasts. The Yuan dynasty which followed on from this then changed China profoundly and spurred global innovations in monetary systems. Marco Polo’s accounts date from this era and these provide personal insights into the era. The subsequent Ming dynasty era saw a relative decline in the importance of the ‘Silk Road’ proper with more emphasis on naval expansion and maritime trade routes. These eventually extended to the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea with Admiral Zheng-He making a number of armed voyages with large fleets. Chinese trade and exploration reached its peak during this period.

 

During the subsequent Qing dynasty period less energy was expended on trade routes and ‘ownership’ of the routes between East and West was absorbed into the nascent European colonial systems during the ‘Vasco da Gama era’, which only ended with the return of sovereign control of Hong Kong to China. Russian dominance in Central Asia caused a decline in the use of traditional land routes and the state of affairs continued until that dominance diminished.

 

Till relatively recently China was a dominant entity not only economically but culturally. Interaction with foreign powers continued to be based on the Chinese way of strategic thinking based on unilateral historical concepts such as ‘Guanxi’ and ‘Tianxia’ which could be traced through the Yuan era and then back to the time of Confucius. China only fully integrated into the world system when it joined the WTO at the turn of the last century, at which point the ’Silk Road’ was reborn as the BRI, on the back of the growth of Chinese power resulting from its cultural, economic and political resurgence.

 

© Carl Michael 2020

Tags:  Belt and Road Initiative  China  Silk Road 

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