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English review - Are We at the Brink of a Chinese World Order?

Is China about to replace the United States as the most influential economic and political force in the world? Will the next generation speak Chinese as their lingua franca and are the days of the ‘old world’ numbered? Philosopher Haroon Sheikh, investigator at the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy and author of the book De opkomst van het Oosten,and sinologist Jue Wang, scholar in the University of Leiden, shared their views on recent and current Chinese economic strategies, as well as their implications for the future. Their lectures focused on the spearhead of Chinese economic expansion: the 1.000 billion dollars Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Road. An unprecedented infrastructural project spanning 60 countries on 4 continents. After there lectures they participated in a discussion with philosopher Mathijs van de Sande from Radboud University and the audience.

China’s Development

Jue Wang placed the BRI in context of the changing economic agenda China has maintained since the second world war. China has come a long way since the 1950’s. Back then, its economic relations with the outside world consisted predominantly of the import of natural resources and equipment to sustain the upcoming industrial society as well as trade with ideologically affiliated countries, such as the Soviet Union, and financial aid to Africa. During the ‘60s, ties with the Soviet Union were cut and China’s economic isolation increased even further. During the 1970’s, China slowly started returning to the international community. Two years after Mao’s death in 1978, reformist leaders introduced economic policies that marked the start of China’s economic expansion that continues till this day. The opening of the Chinese market to Foreign Direct Investment, the instantiation of special economic zones and liberalization of the foreign trade system eventually culminated in China’s membership of the World Trade Organization in 2001. This, in turn, made the export of goods and services soar. By 2008, China had become the largest trade partner in the Asian region and its going-out-policy of 1999 had made it an important investor in developing countries all over the world. The Belt-and-Road Initiative is a continuation of these processes.

Geopolitical Motivations

The BRI is an interregional development strategy aiming to connect multiple countries in Southeast- and Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe through a range of infrastructural projects. This creates a lot of opportunities such as alternative routes for energy supplies and investment opportunities. Moreover it is a platform for strengthening its relationships with the developing world, its own region and with the advanced economies of Europe, thus balancing the power of the United States. It also creates risks: the return of investment is challenged by economic, political, social and security risks in the host countries to the BRI. Furthermore, geopolitical and environmental concerns also strain the financial returns, and combined with the economic slowdown in China itself the economic risks loom large. In this way, Jue Wang warned not to look at the BRI one-dimensionally. It is easy to overestimate the geopolitical motivations of the BRI, while it is primarily a market-oriented strategy. Furthermore, it is easy to exaggerate China’s capacity in shaping international trade and investment regimes through the BRI, while China is already firmly embedded in this international world market. And finally, she warned not to focus solely on state actors. The BRI is a project of private companies and individuals as well.

Chinese Innovation

Haroon Sheikh started his lecture by challenging some common preconceptions we have when it comes to China’s role in the world throughout history. We hold stereotypical images concerning China’s culture, political system and economy; we regard them as organized, authoritarian and a source of cheap labour rather than creativity and innovation. This, Haroon Sheikh pointed out, is misguided. China has been the largest economy in the world for over a thousand years; hence the importance of the Silk Road. This was not only due to its large population, but also to the organization of the state. Enormous feats such as the construction of the Great Wall and the Grand Canal were made possible through the Confucian Scholar Bureaucrat, which means that anyone could work for the state when they passed a state exam. Thus, the brightest and most capable people came into places of power. We must not, according to Haroon Sheikh, underestimate China when it comes to creativity and innovation.

Over Land and Over Sea

The BRI must be seen in this innovative light. Now, the belt, the overland part of the BRI, consists of six corridors connecting China to different parts of the world. Two Eurasian corridors connect China to Europe, emphasizing the economic synergy it wants to establish with the world’s largest economies and the strategic political project of balancing the US’s influence. At the same time, these corridors strain the relationship with Russia, as it provides an alternative energy supply to Eastern Asia. The Islamic Connection, leading all the way to Ankara, increases China’s economic and political influence in the Middle East. The China-Pakistan economic corridor invests in the influence China has over South Asia, while the corridor to Singapore does the same for Southeast Asia and diminishes the western influence over this peninsula. The sixth and last economic corridor belonging to the BRI provides China with a ‘second shore’, additional to the Pacific shore; it ranges all the way through Bangladesh, India and Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. The road, the overseas part of the BRI, can be seen as a maritime Silk Road, connecting refurbished ports as a ‘string of pearls’, countering the western dominance of the oceans. Haroon Sheikh emphasized that the BRI is by no means a static, clear-cut plan to exert influence, but rather an adoptive, flexible strategy to provide China with alternatives to connect itself with the world. He also mentioned future Silk Roads, that might be digital or polar, due to the melting ice in the Arctic Ocean.

Risks and Oppurtunities

Both Jue Wang and Haroon Sheikh placed the BRI in a larger historical framework of the political and economic developments China has undergone in the last 70 years and the last centuries, respectively. Both warned for a simplified, one-dimensional perspective of China and the strategy behind its New Silk Road. Rather, it is a versatile and many-sided project that provides both China itself as well as the world with geopolitical and economic risks and opportunities.

This report was written by Ward Huetink, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.