By Hussein Askary
The speech by President Xi Jinping at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 25th and the “white paper” issued by the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China on January 10th under the title “China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era and a Global Community of Shared Future”, both reaffirmed China’s commitment to continue and develop the Belt and Road Initiative, and at the same time define the path of integrating it into its philosophy of economic cooperation and global governance to make it something other than a “Chinese project”.
Refuting recent reports that China is rolling back its commitment to continue the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as in the case, for example, of articles in the London Financial Times, the Swedish state radio, or German Deutsche Welle, China has renewed its commitment to the BRI in more ways than could be stated here. As the Belt and Road Institute in Sweden (BRIX) has reported in previous articles and news items, the number of nations joining the BRI is increasing, but also China’s investments. While the COVID-19 pandemic had a certain effect on the global supply chains and economic activities and trade, China managed to get out of it stronger than before, but the rest of the world, including the industrialized nations are still struggling. But the road towards prosperity along the BRI is long and the way of achieving it is likewise a long-term policy. The obstacles are many, but they are mostly of a geopolitical nature, a matter that has been addressed by Chinese leaders and institutions recently. This is the subject of this article.
Multilateralism, globalization, and global governance
President Xi Jinping, in his keynote speech at the virtual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, reiterated China’s commitment to the BRI. “China will continue to promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, help keep the global industrial and supply chains smooth and stable, and advance high-quality Belt and Road cooperation,” he said.
However, the dominant theme in President Xi’s speech, that caught the attention of other world leaders, think tanks and media, was “multilateralism”. The title of the speech itself “Let the Torch of Multilateralism Light up Humanity’s Way Forward” was quite revealing as to where the Chinese President intended to lead the discussion. It is to defuse the incredible sate of tension between “West” and “East” in the past few years and months and set the East-West dialog on a path that would lead, in his own words, towards establishing a “community with a shared future for mankind”.
Multilateralism as the Chinese and other developing nations, especially traditionally non-allied nations, understand it is a system of global governance based on the equality among nations large and small through multilateral institutions governed in a “democratic” way under the umbrella of, for example, the United Nations or World Health Organisation. It is opposed to the idea of powerful nations setting the rules for others, by the shear military or economic power they possess, or building blocks of nations on ideological basis as rivals to other blocks, as happened during the Cold War.
“We should reject the outdated Cold War and zero-sum game mentality, adhere to mutual respect and accommodation, and enhance political trust through strategic communication,” Xi said, emphasizing the equal rights of all nations to benefit from universal scientific and technological progress for their development on a cooperative basis. “It is important that we stick to the cooperation concept based on mutual benefit, say no to narrow-minded, selfish beggar-thy-neighbor policies, and stop unilateral practice of keeping advantages in development all to oneself,” said President Xi. He added: “Equal rights to development should be guaranteed for all countries to promote common development and prosperity.”
He concluded his speech by reemphasizing the importance of multilateralism and cooperation, saying: “We have been shown time and again that to beggar thy neighbor, to go it alone, and to slip into arrogant isolation will always fail. Let us all join hands and let multilateralism light our way toward a community with a shared future for mankind.”
Interestingly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also spoke at the Davos summit after President Xi, concurred with is notion. Referring to Xi’s speech, Merkel said: “The Chinese president spoke yesterday, and he and I agree on that. We see a need for multilateralism,” Merkel reportedly said. To explain, she added: “I would very much wish to avoid the building of blocs,” Merkel told the Davos World Economic Forum. “I don’t think it would do justice to many societies if we were to say this is the United States and over there is China and we are grouping around either the one or the other. This is not my understanding of how things ought to be.”
She also emphasized that the major task is how to reach agreement on certain matter of principle among nations with different political and social systems. Merkel gave the example of the EU-China Agreement on Investment as a model for approaching differences.
Economic Cooperation and development as the foundation
The January 2021 Chinese White Paper, titled “China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era and a Global Community of Shared Future” which was issued by The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, elaborates in great detail what President Xi, briefly but strongly emphasized in his speech, with the BRI being a keystone of China’s present and future international cooperation.
Chapter 2, of the paper explains that what President Xi calls a global community of shared future means that “humanity shares a common stake in development, and world stability and prosperity cannot be achieved unless developing countries can progress.” By helping other developing countries reduce poverty and improve their people’s living conditions, China works together with them to narrow the North-South gap, eliminate the deficit in development, establish a new model of international relations based on mutual respect, equity, justice and win-win cooperation.
It also stresses that “South-South” cooperation will be the focus of China. In spite of China’s tremendous achievements, it states that “two realities have not changed: China is in the primary stage of socialism and will remain so for a long time to come, and China is still the world’s largest developing economy.” What this implies is that China’s development cooperation is a form of mutual assistance “between developing countries”. It falls into the category of South-South cooperation and therefore is “essentially different from North-South cooperation”.
What role for Europe and the U.S.?
While it argues strongly for South-South cooperation, the white paper argues that this does not exclude North-South cooperation. Chapter 7 is dedicated to the concept of “tripartite” cooperation. But, even this has specific characteristics. “China is open to exchanges and tripartite cooperation in the field of international development, and will, as a developing country, seek such cooperation with various parties to extend international development cooperation and enhance its capacity in this field,” the paper argues. Tripartite cooperation pertains to joint efforts by China with developed nations (Europe, USA, Japan, and others) in development projects in other developing countries like in Africa and Asia for example.
China is suggesting to combine its own experience in development, eliminating poverty and industrializing with the advantages offered by the developed nations and international organizations which “have an edge in capital and technology.” However, one of the main principles that differentiates China’s approach to developing nations and that of Europe and the U.S. is that the political and social systems of the recipient nations must be respected.
This tends to be, and might become ever more, a bone of contention between China and each of the European and American partners, as the latter tend to hinge development aid and cooperation on “political and social reforms” in the recipient countries. It is probably here that Merkel means there could be challenges in working together.
The Chinese White Paper explains China’s position as thus: “In the final analysis, the goal of tripartite cooperation is to benefit the recipient countries. It is thus necessary to fully respect their sovereignty and controlling voice based on the principle that projects should be proposed, agreed and led by the recipient countries. The criteria are whether the recipient countries welcome, approve of, and are satisfied with the cooperation programs.”
For Europe and the U.S., this kind of arrangement might not be easily accepted, since interventionist policies against developing nations have been the norm in recent decades either directly or through conditionalities imposed by such Western-controlled institutions as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. China has no experience itself with such practices imposed upon it by such institutions, and China itself refrains from imposing such political and social conditions on its partners.
In this case, a pragmatic and mutually beneficial dialog is necessary to resolve such an impasse, in a similar fashion to what was achieved by the negotiations of the China-EU Agreement on Investments.
The BRI as a model of cooperation
In the meantime, the BRI may offer a model for win-win cooperation for all parties. The BRI takes a central position in this White Paper as it describes it as “a major platform” for cooperation. “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road are significant public goods China offers to the whole world and a major platform for international development cooperation. China has joined hands with other countries to promote policy, infrastructure, trade, financial and people-to-people connectivity, to build the Belt and Road into a path towards peace, prosperity, opening up, innovation, green development, cultural exchanges, and clean government,” the White Paper asserts. It also emphasized that the BRI “is helping other developing countries to pursue the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” around the world and the which “has a lot in common with the Belt and Road Initiative.”
The emphasis on eliminating poverty, hunger, disease and building infrastructure for power, water and transport are essential features of the BRI, coinciding with most Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as providing electricity, clean water, healthcare and decent housing. Industrialization, which is SDG number 9, would be impossible without infrastructure. Therefore, the priorities of development should be determined by the developing countries rather than the developed which do not experience such problems as hunger, lack of healthcare, clean water or electricity.
Chapter 3 of the White Paper is fully dedicated to the BRI, both its achievements since its inception in 2013 and, also, China’s continued commitment to its goals. “In the face of the impact of Covid-19”, the paper states, “the Belt and Road Initiative has continued to show great vitality”. It pledges that “China will work to integrate its responsibilities in building the Belt and Road and in implementing the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Furthermore, in terms of development assistance, the paper state that “China will increase assistance to participating countries of the Belt and Road Initiative, the least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, small island developing countries and heavily indebted poor countries.”
Finally, the White Paper stresses that China’s medium and long-term development cooperation programs will “take full account of other developing countries’ development priorities and needs, and the goals of the Belt and Road Initiative and the UN 2030 Agenda.”
China’s commitment to integrating the BRI in all its economic cooperation plans with other nations should be obvious, not simply for the current period, but for many years and probably decades to come. In the face of such unswerving commitment by China, will the Western world, with all its potentials and possibilities join hands with China and the developing nations to create a prosperous and peaceful future for mankind?
A matter of culture
The White Paper on China’s international cooperation actually starts from Chapter 1 with defining the cultural and philosophical origins of the Chinese policymaking. The matter of culture, philosophy and history of China is, unfortunately, seldomly referenced in Western discussions about China’s “intentions” behind its policies such as the BRI. Merely describing China as “Communist” country does not give any clues to how to deal with it and its policies, because it severs today’s People’s Republic of China (admittedly only 72 years old) from the 5000 years of Chinese history. Any fair and serious analyst cannot and should not fall into such an intellectual pitfall.
The White Paper states that “China has a cultural foundation and national character that attach great importance to good faith, friendship, justice and righteousness.”, which is the “driving force” of China’s development cooperation. The foundations it lists for this character (distinctly Confucian although not named as such) are:
“– The Chinese nation’s ideal of universal harmony. China pursues an ideal world where the Great Way rules for the common good, respects the principles of good neighborliness and harmony in relations with all other countries, and advocates cooperation and mutual help. Upholding the belief that all countries are members of a global village with shared future, China contributes to global development.
“– The Chinese idea of repaying kindness with kindness. The Chinese people will always remember the support and help that China has received from other countries and international organizations. Chinese culture admires those who return the favor of a drop of water in need with a spring of water indeed. China is willing to share its successful experience without reservation to boost development in other places and benefit more countries and peoples.
“– The Chinese tradition of internationalism. The Chinese people always preserve a sense of justice and a feeling of sympathy. Over the past seven decades, the Chinese nation has forged ahead, moving from poverty and backwardness towards strength and prosperity. The Chinese people hope that other peoples will also lead a good life while theirs is improving, and are willing to contribute as much as they can to other developing countries’ efforts to satisfy their people’s aspiration for a better life.
“– China’s sense of responsibility as a major country. China is a founding member of the United Nations and also a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It upholds the universal values of humanity – peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom – and sticks to a development path that is peaceful, open, cooperative and inclusive.”
While the definitions of the terms “freedom” and “democracy” vary tremendously from West to East, it needs to be noted that, in this context, the reference is to relations among nations, not among individuals. The Chinese concept of global governance, as explained above, is based upon the “freedom” of each nation to preserve its sovereignty and independence in designing its policies independent of any other nation, as long as it does not imply aggression or harm to other nations. China also wants the global system of governance to be “democratic”, which implies that all nations large or small, powerful or week, or rich or poor all have the same equal voice in international forums and in front of the jury of international law.
It is becoming increasingly urgent that policymakers in the West grasp the real characteristics of the Chinese nation (and even other Asian nations), its history, philosophy, and social organization, in order to be able to make better judgements and avoid conflicts that are not based on matters of principle. The Charter of the United Nations clearly protects the sovereignty and independence of each nation. All differences can be resolved through mutual understanding based on dialog, not projecting ones’ own “values” and norms on others.
In light of this, President Xi’s speech at Davos (January 25, 2021) and the White Paper on International Cooperation (January 10, 2021) are very useful tools through which we can both start tracing China’s and the BRI’s origins and evolution, but also chart a new path of relations with China and ways of dealing with or joining the BRI.