Hussein Askary, Vice-President of the Belt and Road Institute in Sweden
China Daily published today, March 23, a short version of this article.
This year, the tenth anniversary of the launching of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by President Xi Jinping in 2013 will be celebrated. The BRI, which is based on reviving the ancient Silk Road but with new methods and techniques, making it the greatest development initiative in the history of the world. It reaches out to create a global physical connectivity (both hard and digital), coordinating policies among the nations joining it, coordinating financial structures and resources, pursuing unhampered trade, and connecting people to people through cultural, social, and scientific ties. While the BRI was initiated and led by China, it is an all-inclusive organism that welcomes within its confines even those who consider themselves “rivals” of China. 150 nations and 30 international organizations have so far joined it, making those outside of it a minority. This is a testimony of success and popularity.
The tenth anniversary of the BRI arrived at the same time humanity is preparing to finally put the terrible COVID-19 pandemic behind its back, and as China is opening up and lifting all restrictions related to the pandemic. However, the world has unfortunately entered a new cycle of insecurity and instability, militarily and economically. Concerned citizens around the world are wondering if humanity has some clues on how to exit this extremely dangerous situation that can potentially lead to a global conflict between the major nuclear powers of the world. This author believes that the BRI, combined with the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI), both launched by President Xi Jinping, are key components of the peaceful and orderly exit from this precarious situation.
Progress reports of the BRI
On February 3, the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China reported that China’s trade in goods with BRI countries broke new records in 2022, hitting 13.8 trillion yuan (US$2.05 trillion), up 19.4% year on year. Two way investments in many sectors also made a major leap. China’s non-financial foreign direct investments (FDI) in BRI countries reached US$ 23 billion, while BRI countries’ investments in China reached US$ 14.5 billion. BRI projects globally are progressing, and the business turnover of Chinese enterprises of the contracted projects in the BRI countries registered 578.57 billion yuan that accounted for 57.9 percent of the total contracted overseas projects.
Signifying the importance of physical connectivity for global trade, in 2021 the number of train trips of China-Europe freight express rail (CEER) hit a record 15,000 with an increase of 22% year on year. When the CEER was launched in 2011, it registered only 117 trips that year. Surprisingly, despite the war in Ukraine starting in February 2022 and the fact that the CEER transits both Russia and Belarus, 16,000 trains transited and 1.6 million TEUs were transported in 2022. This shows the resilience and absolute necessity of this kind of connectivity for all nations, notwithstanding which ideological and political sides they choose.
What makes the BRI unique is that it focuses on resolving the real obstacles to development. China has learned how to lift 800 million Chinese people from extreme poverty and build the world’s most advanced industrial system. Through the BRI, China is willing to share with others the secrets of its own success. In his keynote speech at the 2015 Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg, South Africa, President Xi said that African nations need to overcome “three main bottlenecks of development” to overcome poverty: lack of infrastructure, lack of capital, and shortage of skilled labor. He promised to work with African nations to overcome these, and make sure that industrialization is achieved on the continent. Therefore, the BRI has been dealing primarily and correctly with building infrastructure on a large scale and financing it. It is also focusing on capacity building through education. Chinese investments took off in earnest after 2013, with the peak being in 2017. In the 2015 FOCAC Summit China pledged US$ 60 billion in loans and investments to Africa, and as much in the 2018 FOCAC Summit in Beijing. Since the launching of the BRI, China has financed and built more than 1000 major projects globally, focusing on transport, and power and water infrastructure. In terms of power production, Chinese capital and companies have been involved in about 800 power plant projects, providing a total of 195.5 GW of power generation capacity. This is almost as much as ten times the power generation capacity of China’s own Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower project. In terms of roads, China has built thousands of kilometers of highways and railways, ports and airports in Asia and Africa connecting nations, regions, and local communities. In terms of skill capacity building, China has surpassed both the United States and the United Kingdom in the number of African students studying in China. It is also establishing research and development centers in many nations especially in agriculture and medicine. Through the Health Silk Road China has greatly increased the capacity of nations in Asia and Africa to produce vaccines.
The existence of efficient infrastructure leads to increased productivity in both agriculture and industrial sectors, as the case of Ethiopia exemplifies that. Ethiopia, which was previously associated with famine and poverty, is leapfrogging in development with average 10% annual growth, thanks to the combination of its own indigenous reforms and hard work and the major contributions from China, such as the revolution in hydropower in the country. There are several large China-built industrial parks in the country that produce consumer goods and even automobiles for both the domestic market and for exports. China-built Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway and the Djibouti Port, both built and developed by China, have become the artery through which Ethiopia both imports necessary materials like fertilizers, but increasingly exports agricultural and consumer goods from its industrial parks to world markets. Similar industrial parks are being developed in Pakistan, Egypt, and Belarus. China is actively developing the digital connectivity inside many BRI nations and among regions and on a transcontinental scale through new marine fiberoptic cables and other largescale investments in telecommunications.
Why is China doing this?
There is a wide range of disinformation proliferating in Western media about the “real agenda” behind China’s BRI and cooperation with other developing nations. This ranges from setting up “debt traps” for poor nations to take over their assets, colonialist ambitions, and control over strategic minerals of other nations, none of which has any foundation in reality.
China’s goals and intentions are simple to understand for clear-minded people, but also too subtle for those who both practice neo-colonialism and big power manipulations. First, the Chinese despise the idea of zero-sum games, because it is part of the imperialist legacy which China itself suffered immensely from in the past. Second, geopolitics is another notion that is rejected since it is well-known how British geopolitics of “divide and conquer” infamy gave the world two catastrophic world wars in the 20th century. The post-WWII cold war was also geopolitics.
China does believe in win-win cooperation and the fact that interdependency among nations is a guarantee for peaceful co-existence. Economically speaking, China considers its own economic progress and prosperity as a function of the progress and prosperity of other nations. On the one hand, China needs thriving and stable markets for its exports and services. At the same time, it needs a secure and sustained flow of raw materials and other basic products to China to achieved the goals it set for itself. Above all, China needs a peaceful and stable environment in which it can progress. These are completely legitimate goals that are being gradually reached with the majority of nations of the planet with diplomatic means and without firing a single shot against any nation.
Community of shared future
This method is enshrined in the Chinese concept of a “community of a shared future for mankind” which means that no nation can develop and prosper in isolation, and it should not enrich itself at the expense of others. In his report to the 20th National Congress of the CPC, President Xi said: “Building a human community with a shared future is the way forward for all the world’s peoples. An ancient Chinese philosopher observed that ‘all living things may grow side by side without harming one another, and different roads may run in parallel without interfering with one another’. Only when all countries pursue the cause of common good, live in harmony, and engage in cooperation for mutual benefit will there be sustained prosperity and guaranteed security. It is in this spirit that China has put forward the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative, and it stands ready to work with the international community to put these two initiatives into action.”
China is not intending to reinvent the wheel of international relations. The hard-won UN Charter is the basic law of the global governance China supports. This has been the traditional policy of China since the 1950s when it introduced the 5 principles of peaceful co-existence. However, with the complex situation facing the world today, it was necessary for China to redefine and elucidate some of these principles.
The security and development symbiosis
The GDI was presented by President Xi Jinping at the UN General Assembly in 2021 to address “steering global development toward a new stage of balanced, coordinated and inclusive growth”, and called for staying committed to development as a priority and strengthen the priorities of the international community. But he emphasized achieving them through a process of promotion of industrialization in developing nations. This includes advancing, on a priority basis, cooperation on poverty alleviation, food security, development financing, climate change and green development, industrialization, digital economy, and connectivity to accelerate implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
What makes the GDI special is that it makes transparent the concept of development putting emphasis on the priorities of the developing nations. This differs greatly from the priorities set by the G-7, and the EU who put emphasis on “political changes” rather than solving the urgent needs of humanity such as the elimination of poverty, hunger, lack of clean water and electricity, healthcare, and education. Even when Western-backed institutions like the World Bank do finance “development” projects, it is done in a small and micro magnitude with no tangible impact on national economies. The World Bank has been opposing the notions of “mega projects” such as the hydropower projects in Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo. This Western attitude, which often translates into interference in the political affairs of developing nations, regime-change by political destabilization or outright military invasions, has alienated many nations in Africa and Asia. Those nations see the Chinese vision of development more attractive as China itself as a developing nation succeeded in lifting its own people from extreme poverty and economic backwardness in record time.
The GSI was announced by President Xi in April 2022 as tension in Europe around the crisis in Ukraine was increasing, and a diplomatic solution seemed to have taken a back seat relative to military escalation, with more weapons pouring into Ukraine making the situation more complicated to resolve. President Xi presented a set of 13 principles to secure global peace and co-existence. But he also, in the same breath, raised the issue of global economic challenges, sustainable development goals, and peace and security as one package, calling for solidarity among all nations. “The hardships and challenges are yet another reminder that humanity is a community with a shared future where all people rise and fall together,” he said.
In this sense security and development become inseparable. Peace through economic development becomes the new norm for global governance. The development requirements in the global south are enormous. Even the industrial world is suffering under an aging infrastructure, deteriorating services, and major economic and social crises that are dividing societies. China alone cannot solve all the problems of the world. There is need to both redefining the notions of development and security by all nations. The BRI has proved itself to be a suitable and attractive model among developing nations. It should be supported by the Western powers, not undermined, for the benefit of all.