In an interview with Chinese show “Diplomacy Talk,” Stephen Brawer, chairman of the Belt and Road Institute in Sweden, offers insightful perspectives on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). He elaborates on its historic importance, global impact, and potential benefits, particularly its role in infrastructure development and poverty alleviation. Brawer, also distinguished professor at the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies, urges European nations to consider the advantages of joining the BRI, critiquing Western efforts in making similar but hollow proposals, such as the G7’s “Build Back Better World.” He also debunks misconceptions about China in the West, like the notion of the BRI as a “debt trap.”
Following is the transcript of the interview.
Diplomacy Talk: What interests you about the BRI? Do you have any relevant experiences to share with us?
Stephen Brawer: I became interested because of an association that I have worked with in a number of years called the Shiller Institute that developed a perspective on what was the Eurasian Land Bridge. That is how through modern infrastructure, you can connect the world, continents, for the purpose of improving life for everyone.
In 2013, when President Xi Jinping initiated the BRI, it became obvious that this was, in some way, a parallel kind of idea that was coming from China. That could be a basis for establishing the institute that I’m the chairman of, which we did in 2018. And that was the basis upon which we began to understand not alone the importance of the BRI, but how can that be presented to Sweden. Because at that time and even presently, the Swedish population has no understanding of what this initiative has been. And very often they’re given false information that is not accurate in terms of what the Belt and Road is really all about.
I think this is a historic and important work, as I share the feeling of President Xi Jinping that it’s a community with a shared future for mankind; it’s a win-win type of perspective for the world.
Diplomacy Talk: In your view, what motivated China to propose this initiative?
Stephen Brawer: I’ve not had a personal discussion with President Xi Jinping as of yet. But from all I’ve read and I’ve read many of his speeches, I think it’s clear that there is a long history in China and Chinese society to wish for the common good. How can development lead in the direction of improving not only the lives of people here, but internationally? And I’m somewhat convinced that this is the idea of how can the world and the greatest number of nations in the world cooperate together.
This is my first long-term trip to China, but I’ve learned an amazing amount having come here to Guangzhou and seen Shenzhen. It’s amazing how the development of China has gone forward, eliminating extreme poverty and raising 800 million people (out of poverty) is unprecedented in human history. So it’s something to admire. And I don’t think the Western countries have, for the most part, really understood that. So I work to clarify and help to get them to understand that in the work that we’re doing.
Diplomacy Talk: Promoting Sweden’s engagement with the initiative is a goal of your institute. Why do you believe Sweden should be involved?
Stephen Brawer: Sweden is a relatively small country with a population that is approximately 10 million. It’s half the population of approximately a Guangzhou.
My view is if Sweden would understand the importance of joining the BRI, the possibility for contributing to the development of Africa and other countries with Swedish technology would be in the interest of the developing nations and very much in the interests of Sweden.
Diplomacy Talk: Based on your research, what would you say if you had an opportunity to introduce the BRI to the world in just a few sentences?
Stephen Brawer: That’s a big challenge. But as I would say, one of the key points of the BRI is the use and development of infrastructure. If you want to eliminate poverty, you can’t do it unless you increase and improve major infrastructure.
So, for me, the BRI and the commitment to developing infrastructure is the essence of how we can eliminate worldwide poverty.
Diplomacy Talk: What benefits do you think this initiative could give European countries and their citizens?
Stephen Brawer: European economies are not in good shape right now. I think most analysts would admit that the sanctions that have been directed against Russia and other factors are putting Europe in a very unpleasant situation, economically, energy-wise.
And unfortunately, right now in Europe, they do not recognize it. The EU is not recognizing that these policies are, in principle, leading to the downfall and the collapse of European economies. If they would recognize that they should be changing that and cooperating more directly with China. That vision is not there at the moment in Europe.
Diplomacy Talk: You have a favorable view of the BRI. Do you feel like you are advocating for this initiative on your own in Sweden? Or do you have like-minded companions?
Stephen Brawer: I think there are people in Sweden who do and are beginning to understand and agree with what we’re doing. Unfortunately, the mainstream media are not prepared to cover what we’re saying. They have a very biased view of China in a general sense.
But I think we can overcome those difficulties and primarily by finding individuals who are a little bit more courageous because at the moment, there is no genuine, accurate, either reporting of the BRI or balanced view of it. So, we’re quite alone in that. That sometimes is the way you have to go forward. And we are finding that there are people and organizations who are happy with what we’re doing. So, we’ll continue to do that work.
Diplomacy Talk: In recent years, the developed world has also introduced some global infrastructure plans like the G7’s “Build Back Better World” and the G20’s India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor.
Stephen Brawer: I think that they’re competing or claiming to be giving a so-called counter position to China, but they have, in studies that we’ve been doing, no real substance to them. They’re competing with China because the BRI has been even in this first 10-year period so successful. And the rise of China, not only internally, but in terms of its role as a vehicle to help many of the other developing countries, is challenging the Western power structure.
But they have never had a development perspective. Since the end of World War II, there has not been a genuine initiative by the global power structure, including the IMF and the World Bank, that has functioned to raise the infrastructure modernization. And now they’re feeling challenged by the Belt and Road, not because they really are intending or have any idea of how to do it, but only to counter what they see as the successful developments of China in the Belt and Road.
But when you look at the facts of what they are actually proposing and how to finance it, there’s no reality to it. It’s words, but it doesn’t have real substance. I don’t think that it will go forward.
Diplomacy Talk: Some Western media outlets have raised concerns about the BRI, including issues related to “debt traps,” “resource exploitation.” How do you view these criticisms?
Stephen Brawer: There’s no substance to this. My colleagues have written an extensive article on the fact that the so-called scenario or “debt trap” agenda is not real. It’s a tactic that has come out of certain intelligence sources, not people who are really competent in economics. It’s an attempt to try and persuade other parts of the world that they shouldn’t go forward in working with the BRI.
These (criticisms) are generally being done because the unfortunate reality is much of the West, including the United States and Western Europe, is still struggling with the idea of the rise of China as a threat, rather than as a positive development, not only for China and developing world, but also for the Western nations as well.
Diplomacy Talk: Why do you think some Western countries are distrustful, concerned, or even fearful of the BRI?
Stephen Brawer: There is actually a more fundamental difference in the economic thinking behind the rise of China in terms of its opening up and its development from the way that the Western, not alone their position on China, but their internal ideas on economics. Their ideas that are presently controlling Western economic thinking and economy are incompetent. They’re not working. That China is working, is, therefore, for them, something of a threat or a dilemma. They’re not used to the idea of having an alternative power that is presenting the world with other options.
But the fundamental problem is Western thinking in economic terms is wrong. The Western economies are plagued with speculative investments that have no real substance. It’s monetary investments, short term: how do you make money in a very short term, not how do you have a vision for development. And that’s a big problem, because unless they can begin to understand and change that thinking, they are not going to be able to embrace the benefits and the understanding of the Belt and Road.
Diplomacy Talk: What kind of prospects do you envision for the BRI amid a sluggish global economy and ongoing regional conflicts?
Stephen Brawer: What I see is the ongoing 10-year vision that Xi Jinping emphasized in his speech at the BRI forum. It’s not only what we have achieved in the last 10 years, which is successful, but where we will go in the next decade. And you don’t have that vision in the West right now. And a lot of people in Sweden are frustrated with the lack of vision among almost all the political parties. No vision, just how do we solve one problem to the next almost on a daily basis. The West has to wake up. They’re not waking up yet, but they need to wake up.
Diplomacy Talk: Do you think they will wake up?
Stephen Brawer: I’m an optimist. We are not living in a world that is the way I would like to see it. With the horrors of what’s going on in the Middle East with Gaza, I think this is barbaric what’s going on. But if we address these problems in the right way, I think we can define a good future for humanity. Win-win, that’s the idea for the future. And we need to always be optimistic about hope. Otherwise, we give up the essential parts of our humanity.
Diplomacy Talk: What kind of country do you think China is?
Stephen Brawer: China has an incredible, long civilization. China has a long history that is, in my view, one of the reasons that they have become the initiator of this Belt and Road Initiative. I think it comes from the depth of Chinese civilization, a notion of harmony, and a notion of the common good.
Diplomacy Talk: Apart from the BRI, China has also proposed other initiatives like the Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, and Global Civilization Initiative. So, how do you interpret China’s continued proposal of new initiatives?
Stephen Brawer: I think they’re all aspects of a more important, detailed concept of how to bring the world closer together. I personally think the Global Civilization Initiative has extreme importance because of raising the question of understanding. Because there are great problems in terms of China and Europe understanding one another, not simply on the issue of the Belt and Road, but understanding the difference in our cultures, our philosophy, our thinking.
At the same time, I think we have very great common interests. I think this is something that needs to be elevated, raised in educational work. Because that is the means by which we can really close the gap between Europe and China, not just bridge it, but close it, and make our civilizations work together for an even better future for mankind.
Diplomacy Talk: What are some common misunderstandings of China in Sweden or in the West in general?
Stephen Brawer: I would say that one of the key things there is the attempt to try and utilize the idea of democracy as something that is exclusive only to so-called Western culture. It’s a constant theme that is taken up in Sweden and Europe that China is not democratic, that China is autocratic in some respects. Accusing China of not being democratic is simply an inability of the Western thinkers to understand the nature of the Chinese political system.
And these are tactics that are being used to maintain a division. They’re not intended to bring the East and the West closer. They’re part of a geopolitical strategy to, if not create a cold war, essentially maintain a distance and a gap. And I think that it’s outdated. It’s very superficial. And it has no depth in terms of the thinking.