“During the extended period of agricultural society, China was an economic power in the world … but it later missed out on the industrial revolution … and it gradually slipped into a position where it was passively subjected to abuse,” the Chinese scholar Zhi Zhenfeng wrote in 2018. But, he added, there was now “the historical opportunity of the millennium” to catch up with the West and possibly overtake it. The project to bring this about had been announced in 2015 by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping under the name “One Belt, One Road.”
Bruno Maçães’ recent book Belt and Road. A Chinese World Order, from which the above quotation is taken, provides a fascinating account of the “One Belt, One Road” project: what it is, what its economic and political implications are, and what the world will look like at its outcome. Maçães, a Portuguese politician, political scientist, and business strategist, writes that “Belt and Road,” as he calls it for short, is not just one project, “it is an idea, a concept, a process, better captured through a metaphor, not an exact description.” (p. 24) “The Belt and Road,” he adds, “is the name for a global order infused with Chinese political principles and placing China at its heart. In economic terms this means that China will be organizing and leading an increasing share of global supply chains, reserving for itself the most valuable segments of production and creating strong links of collaboration and infrastructure with other countries, whose main role in the system will be to occupy lower value segments. Politically, Beijing hopes to put in place the same kind of feedback mechanism that the West has benefited from: deeper links of investment, infrastructure and trade can be used as leverage to shape relations with other countries even more in its favor.” (p. 30)
Maçães goes on to describe how, in pursuit of “Belt and Road, China has set out on the economic development of Central Asia, particularly that of Kazakhstan, how it is building an economic corridor all the way from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Karachi in Pakistan and on to Gwadar on the coast of the Indian Ocean, and how it is establishing port facilities in Djibouti in Africa with plans for a high speed rail system crossing the entire continent to the African West Coast, thereby establishing at the same time a new route to South America. “Belt and Road” is certainly not one project, as Maçães shows, but a flexible program of global development. It envisages lines of economic development and infrastructure that will reach by land and sea to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The assumption is moreover that the countries connected in this way will also have to harmonize and coordinate their political arrangements. Due to negative reactions from the West to this vastly ambitious undertaking, the Chinese have, in fact, now given up using the term “One Belt, One Road.” But they have by no means cut back on their plans. They continue to invest vast sums of money, thereby diverting also their foreign exchange reserves from American government securities in which they had previously invested them.
Maçães is certain that the project will eventually re-organize the entire existing world order – even if it is never fully realized. He has accordingly argued already in a previous book that we need to abandon some of our familiar geo-political concepts. We must, in particular, learn to speak once again of “Eurasia” as a single economic and political space and thus move beyond n thinking of Europe and Asia as different continents. In his new book he reminds us that strategists have already begun to write similarly of the “Indo-Pacific” instead of the Indian and the Pacific oceans as separate domains. Maçães understands that “Belt and Road” will, no doubt, undergo changes as it evolves, that over time it may even become less Sinocentric, and that as it develops it will also run into increasingly stronger headwinds – coming in particular from the United States who will inevitably feel threatened by the rise of this alternative world order but also perhaps by an increasingly more ambitious India. He concludes his book by sketching four possible scenarios for China’s place in the future world system.
The most likely outcome, he argues, is not that of a convergence of global systems. He agrees with James Mann in his 2007 book The China Fantasy that American policymakers have used the myth of convergence as an anesthetic and tranquilizer, allowing them to believe in the invulnerability of the Western system. “Instead, Mann predicted, China would remain an authoritarian country, and its success would encourage other authoritarian regimes to resist pressure to change.” (p. 177) And so it seems to have turned out. “The new world order towards which we are moving is not one where there is a clear centre, but rather one distinguished by the search for balance between different poles. So when we describe a new Chinese world order we have to keep in mind that there will be other shareholders, other shapers, other balancers.” (p. 191) So, it turns out, that we have entered a second age of globalization, “where borders become increasingly diffuse but cultural and civilizational differences do not, giving rise to a permanently unstable compound of heterogeneous elements.” (p. 192)
I found Maçães’ book incredibly helpful in trying understand the meaning and implications of the One Belt, One Road project. The book is certainly an informed, well-written, and well-argued guide to what may be ahead.
Bruno Maçães, Belt and Road. A Chinese World Order (Hurst & Co, London 2018)
Here is a link to a podcast with Bruno Maçães and Linda Yueh on the topic of China’s new world order: Maçães’ https://player.fm/series/series-1264716/bruno-macaes-and-linda-yueh-on-the-chinese-world-order