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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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What underpins the BRI?

Posted By Carl Michael, Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Carl Michael inspects the underpinnings of Belt 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.


© Carl Michael 2020

Tags:  BRI  safety  technology 

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What is the BRI?

Posted By Carl Michael, Friday, January 3, 2020

Carl Michael, a member of our Emerging Fellows program initiates publishing a series of blog posts aimed at envisioning the long-term future of the belt and road. This is his first post in our EF blog devoted to BRI. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) is the most visible manifestation of China’s stupendous economic resurgence, its overwhelming geopolitical ambition and its sense of purpose. The multi-trillion-dollar initiative and its supercharged timeline is the Chinese government’s long-term vision for the future. The BRI, also referred to as ‘One Belt One Road’, covers global engagement, international infrastructure, investment, technology, connectivity and trade routes from China to Europe, comprehensively integrated together in strategic, geopolitical and economic terms. The multi-civilizational and massive scope of the BRI covers over fifty countries, touches about a third of the global economy and over sixty percent of humanity. The Chinese President Xi Jinping officially launched the BRI in Beijing in May 2017 with the stated desire of creating peace and prosperity for participating nations through economic corridors and cultural cooperation.


The ‘Belt’ section of the BRI is the modern incarnation of the historical overland ‘Silk Road’, the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’. It extends from China to Europe, via Russia, Central Asia and West Asia. The evolution of the Belt and the development of a new balance of power in the heart of the Eurasian landmass will be of key interest over the coming decades. The ‘Road’ section of the BRI refers to the maritime ‘Silk Road’ which has been inspired by medieval Chinese voyages. It links routes, navies and ports into a ‘String of Pearls’. Its Western arm extends from the South China Sea, through the Indian Ocean to Africa and thence to Europe via the Suez Canal and its Eastern arm extends to the resources provided by Australia and New Zealand. These ‘roads’ are vital because the vast majority of global trade is seaborne. In addition to these the BRI has strategically located cross-border ‘corridor’ extensions, including oil and gas pipelines; it also has the potential for an ‘Arctic Silk Road’ to take advantage of climate change and to avoid existing maritime chokepoints. A ‘Digital Silk Road’ comprising the latest cable and wireless network trunk connections and technology standards, a BRI currency ‘Road’ and a ‘Space Silk Road’, could also be considered to be under the aegis of the BRI.


The significance of the BRI cannot be overestimated. It has become China’s overriding national strategy in a similar manner to the significant moves by the USA, UK, and other Western nations post WW2, in setting up the UNO, the World Bank and the IMF. This is the premier Chinese global cooperation initiative and tremendous effort is being expended into its success by both government and non-government concerns, supported by a colossal diplomatic effort. Given the immense demand for international infrastructure and China’s huge production capacity and purposeful commitment, the BRI is bound to leave a significant and lasting mark in the international arena where it has been both welcomed and met with suspicion. It brings to the forefront the need for indispensable partnerships, the need to prepare for strategic shocks, and the ability to address overstretch.


The rapid growth of China’s megalopolises and their existing mesh of connections with the wider world has provided the foundation for the BRI. Building on this milieu of people, capabilities, strategic ambition and commercial interest makes China a key player in the post Vasco da Gama era version of the Great Game, albeit with a much larger game board. The other players, big and small, could end up using this new version of the ‘game’ as their opportunity for addressing inequality and unlocking the potential of their dynamic populations, thus advancing their own interests. The new ‘game’ is reshaping alliances, redefining the internal structure of nations, reformulating worldviews and heightening security tensions. With all of this in mind, it is essential for us to examine what underpins the edifice of the BRI in order to foresee how Pax-Sinica could play out in the arena.


© Carl Michael 2020

Tags:  BRI  safety  technology 

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