Participants in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation pose for a group photo at the Beijing Yanqi Lake International Convention & Exhibition Center on May 15, 2017 (XINHUA)
In the era since China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, the country's boom in productivity has brought massive benefits in terms of delivering prosperity and material wealth to the Chinese people, and indeed through GDP growth contributions to the outside world, but it has also posed a problem: How does this economic prowess translate into other forms of influence and power?
Up to 2012, China's position was an unusual one. It had risen to become the world's second largest economy, overtaking Japan in 2010, and yet it still didn't figure much in the thinking of the Western public, or, for that matter, many of their politicians. The priority for them was often the U.S. or Europe. China had a position subsidiary to these places in their thinking—a partner that needed to acclimatize and fit into the already extant global architecture of governance and economic decision making, and aim to cooperate, rather than actively participate.
Since 2012, however, there has been a more proactive and more communicative Chinese foreign policy stance. That has manifested itself in some of the key narratives that have come from China's new-generation leadership with President Xi Jinping at its core—the U.S. and China being, for instance, a "new model of major power relations" or the EU figuring as a "civilizational partner." Of all of these, the Belt and Road Initiative is the most distinctive, and the idea over which China has most ownership. What does this indigenous foreign policy stance from China mean for the outside world?
In 2018, we can say that the first striking issue about the Belt and Road and what it says about China's belief in its foreign policy position as it continues to grow as an economy is that it does not fit into any neat, pre-created spaces. China is not contesting the global system—it continues to work in the UN, the World Bank, the WTO and the International Monetary Fund. It has not denied the importance of these though it has raised questions about the representativeness of their structures of governance. With the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and a more introspective American view of its place in the world, in many ways, China has become a more prominent and more internationalist actor than even the most daring would have imagined three decades ago. China has continued to support free trade deals and has positioned itself as a staunch "globalist." It stands by the philosophy it adopted at the start of reform and opening up almost four decades ago—looking for a country integrated into the world around it, supportive of the stable governance of that world and seeking mutual benefits from that stability. This is a very open attitude.
The notion therefore of a China which, having built up its economic and industrial capacity, would march into the rest of the world demanding things on its terms and upending the existing system simply hasn't happened, and the Belt and Road Initiative, with its incremental and often very liquid format, is symptomatic more of caution, creating spaces rather than trying to conquer them, and setting in place dialogue rather than insisting on monologue. If this is a bid for global diplomatic dominance, it seems to be a very slow, laborious one.
But nor does this mean that with China's new global prominence everything just carries on as normal. Chinese leaders, particularly since 2012, have wanted a more representative and just settlement for their country, and one where its status in terms of trade partnership and financial and investment contribution does give it a bigger voice. This has been accompanied by the creation of Chinese initiated entities like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which now has over 80 members and is starting a number of investment projects in the Asian region. Again, the more frenetic interpretation of the AIIB when it appeared was that it would compete with already extant entities like the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In fact, the reality has been more complex. For some of its projects, it has actually cooperated with the ADB, and as many have pointed out, the immense need for infrastructure investment across the continent means there could be dozens of similar organizations and they would still only be able to meet some of the demand.
At the heart of these proactive efforts originating from China in the last half a decade are two major impulses: One is to seek ways of converting Chinese economic success into other areas where the country's status and rightful international place are at least recognized by others and accepted without contention. The logic of this is simple: As the world's second biggest economy, China's continuing to occupy a subsidiary position is odd and unsustainable. There needs to be a new settlement, which the Belt and Road Initiative is driving toward, where China inhabits a legitimate space, and is able to pursue its vision and narrative of global development in a way which is at least heard, and able to make a contribution, rather than being marginalized and unheeded.
The second is that China's experience of development over the last 40 years has given it a unique set of experiences, things that it can now share as a knowledge partner. After 1978, it was often the one learning, with delegations traveling throughout the developed world from China looking at how others had experienced growth and built advanced economies and societies. Now it is in the position of having a lot of experience and understanding of, for instance, how to construct infrastructure, how to alleviate poverty and how to improve human development indicators. These are issues which the rest of the world, and in particular those countries still developing, would want to look at and at least know more about, and consider adopting elements of in their own environments.
On top of this, there is also the issue of China being a stakeholder in global public goods—in particular the environment and natural resources. While many seem apprehensive and skeptical about a newly prominent China and what its objectives may be, we can't lose sight of the fact that it is in everyone's interests—China's, America's and the rest of the world's—to do as much as possible to address the pressing issues of environmental degradation. These are the ultimate global public goods. Having China as engaged as it currently is on these issues is a hugely positive thing. But there needs to be recognition of China's broader role, rather than just admission for it to areas where things work for the rest of the world, and demand for silence on matters where there is less concord. That sort of asymmetrical outcome has many issues, but the most obvious is that it would be unsustainable, causing resentment and tension.
So with the Belt and Road Initiative, we do have a major opportunity for improved dialogue between China and the outside world, and one that avoids stark extremes and contrasts. A normalization of dialogue, and a focus on exchanges of knowledge and the different perspectives these come from, is among the best things this new idea offers. China is already too prominent to simply try to force it into a marginal position, even if it were content for that to happen. Attempts to marginalize China would be an injustice for everyone simply because the things that China can deliver now and the contribution that it can make are so significant. It would be a terrible tragedy were China not able to be a full, active and positive part of global development, and impoverish the potential future outcomes if it were not given a stronger, constructive role. From that perspective, in terms of mutual learning and increased understanding, the Belt and Road Initiative operates as an attempt to set up a global knowledge community that is engaged, alert and accessible to the opportunities that deeper dialogue with China brings. It is in that space, more than any other, that this initiative holds most promise and has the most long term significance.
The author is director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London