Once in a while the question changes. Not so long ago western policy makers asked whether a rising China would sign up as a “responsible stakeholder” in the postwar global system. Now amid controversy over the Beijing-inspired Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, they query whether a risen China’s plans to create a new international architecture can sit comfortably alongside the US-led order established in 1945.
Everyone in China is talking about President Xi Jinping’s “ One Belt, One Road” initiative. No one seems to know precisely what it means. The experts and policy makers, who gathered this week in Guangzhou for the annual Stockholm China Forum hosted by the German Marshall Fund and Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, mulled half-a-dozen descriptions and interpretations. For all that, everyone seems to understand that the push westwards is Mr Xi’s big play — a Eurasian grand strategy that will put beyond doubt China’s status as a global power.
All remaining trace of the diffidence that once marked China’s rise has disappeared. To suggest that China might have become overly assertive in its neighbourhood is to be guilty of “20th century thinking”. The 21st century mind, Beijing says, accepts Chinese power as a simple fact of geopolitics. As for stakeholding, well, great powers are not content with membership of other people’s clubs. They start their own.
Confusingly, the “road” part of Mr Xi’s project is not about retracing ancient silk roads, but expanding and securing maritime routes to the Middle East and Europe. Beijing has always seen the Strait of Malacca as a dangerous choke point. So it is reaching into the Indian Ocean. The blueprint includes a deepwater naval base in Pakistan and another way to the sea through Myanmar and Bangladesh. Beijing is opening northern shipping routes to Europe as the ice melts in the Arctic. The navy, China’s latest military strategy paper says, has moved beyond the defence of offshore waters to “open-seas defence”.
As for the “belt”, the ambition extends beyond mere roads and railways — though officials are noticeably proud of a new rail freight route carrying Chinese manufactures from Zhengzhou overland through Russia to Hamburg. A $42bn aid package for Pakistan announced by Mr Xi is one piece in the mosaic of agreements and deals taking China westwards. The former Soviet Republics of Central Asia are to get power stations, manufacturing plants and pipelines in return for gas supply contracts. A railway and highway will link China to the Arabian Sea. The new connections to the Horn of Africa and Europe will hasten the process of Eurasian economic integration.
There is a something-for-everybody quality about this. There were those at the Stockholm Forum who suspected that One Belt, One Road, was as much about presentation as grand strategy — a panoptic vision conjured up as the organising idea for a disparate set of objectives, motives and projects.
Thus the aid for Islamabad is driven by the desire to limit support for Uighur separatists in Xinjiang province from Islamist extremists in Pakistan. The myriad infrastructure projects across the region are needed to soak up China’s excess industrial capacity. The move into the so-called “Stans” of central Asia is an opportunist response to Russian weakness following Vladimir Putin’s military adventurism in Ukraine; so too are the big gas deals with Moscow. And behind everything, of course, lies the existential imperative to secure supplies of natural resources and energy.
Yet for all the ragged edges, put these initiatives together and they add up to a lot more than the sum of the parts. If great powers like to start their own clubs, they also set about turning economic weight into geopolitical clout.
China insists the One Belt One Road enterprise has room for all, whether from the west or East Asia. It issued an open invitation to join the fledgling AIIB. Washington has since made itself look silly by trying, and failing, to organise a boycott of the new bank.
The important thing, though, about all the initiatives is that China intends to set the parameters. As the London-based consultancy Trusted Sources puts it, Beijing is harnessing all its economic, financial and diplomatic muscle to drive a process of Eurasian integration from its own border to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. That adds up to quite a sphere of influence.
It will not proceed smoothly, of course. Moscow is already uncomfortable in the role of junior partner in the Sino-Russian relationship. With good reason it is nervous about China’s move into the former Soviet Republics. Estrangement from the west has obliged Mr Putin to sell Russia cheaply.
China’s old rival India is expanding its own naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Large cheques from Beijing will not smooth away the rivalries and competition for resources that bedevil central Asia. And the US could have told Beijing that pouring money into Islamabad does not buy security guarantees.
China is not seeking to upend the existing global order. Not yet anyway. But the geostrategic message could scarcely be clearer. Beijing intends to be a rulemaker as much as a rule-taker. Even as it competes with the US in East Asia, it looks set on becoming pre-eminent in Eurasia. The west has to decide whether to become a stakeholder in someone else’s project.
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