Let China’s Belt and Road Initiative Precipitate Its Undoing
Chinese investment remains lucrative and difficult to resist even amid the controversy surrounding this coronavirus pandemic, and cooperation with its producers and manufacturers is tantamount to irreplaceable for many global industries’ supply chains. The nation’s economic rise has prompted concerns about relying on its goodwill, all the more given its recent moves in Ladakh and Hong Kong.
These criticisms often revolve around the Belt and Road Initiative, a loosely defined scheme of Chinese investment in over 70 countries. The West has met it with resistance, many opinion-makers accusing China of debt-trap diplomacy, imperialism, and interference in other states’ internal affairs.
This, no doubt, has precipitated the hostile attitudes, emanating from the Trump administration and its global partners, towards Beijing and reinforced the conviction that China must be confronted with force. However, our politicos’ fixation on it has only resulted in retaliatory policies: rather than negotiating the release of the Huawei CFO, Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese Communist Party chose confrontation, detaining two Canadian nationals on charges of espionage, and similarly did not derail the adoption of the new national security law, notwithstanding some warnings of sanctions. Nor did it back down on the BRI. Conversely, even NATO members, namely Italy and Hungary, have gone for bilateral trade agreements with Beijing. Similar developments have been observed in South Korea. Evidently, China has been playing defence against us for quite some time, and has certainly mastered this strategy.
Perpetuating the same hardline approach to China is therefore unlikely to produce results; after all, the majority of our previous policies have ended in a bleak stalemate, and the post-pandemic world seems hardly promising in relation to containing Beijing and its aspirations. A new approach is necessary. Herein, I propose we allow the country’s regime to venture outside its comfort zone by compelling it to go on the offensive in the economic sphere. Ill-experienced and unprepared to lead, China will suffer politically, its expansionism risking becoming bogged down in quagmire. This approach appears particularly favourable to its alternative, considering that America has been debilitated by the pandemic, and that calls to include Japan, India, and Australia in the NATO to counteract China have not yet materialised.
As it stands, China is an economic powerhouse where Western firms are reluctant to curtail their operations. This year’s survey, conducted by the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, shows that only 11% of respondent businesses professed to “considering shifting investment to other countries”, and this figure represents a 4% drop from the last year’s number. Exporters are enticed by the nation’s 1.4 billion consumers, whereas importers benefit from the local labour’s lower costs to boost profits, and neither wish to abandon the place in the sun. Further commercial conflict with China — with tariffs on Chinese products and expensive awareness campaigns — would consequently be counterproductive.
However, the Communist state is far less invincible, in relation to converting its economic might into soft power. Seven years after it launched the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, it has encountered considerable problems. Most analysts interpret the BRI project as the China blueprint to centralise international trade around itself, but this ambition remains elusive. Therefore, we may place our trust in the aforementioned policy of pushing China closer towards the global economic responsibility, for which it is hardly prepared ideologically and diplomatically. This is because most of deals it has signed involve those countries that have been marginalised by the West, including Russia and Pakistan, and this bargaining chip would not help China’s talks with other Eurasian countries as much. If Beijing is struggling to realise its objectives without robust Western resistance to the BRI, it would naturally stumble upon further obstacles, once it roams freely.
Understandably, doing this is a gamble, but the recent developments in the BRI signal much optimism. In its pursuit of bilateral deals, China has failed to devise and diffuse clear standards for what qualifies as a Belt and Road Initiative project, resulting in its loss of control over the BRI’s public image. As Wade Shepard wrote in his article for Forbes, “The BRI became a broad term to describe anything China abroad”, whilst corruption scandals, ostensible cancellations of Chinese enterprises in every corner of Asia, and debt-trap diplomacy accusations of “the BRI brand left it tarnished”. Some projects have been retroactively added to the scheme, whereas others apply the BRI credentials, irrespective of their significance for China. In turn, this suggests it has been designed and effectuated haphazardly, thereby leaving little substance to it upon closer inspection.
It does not help that many cargo containers travelling from Europe to China by rail constructed with Chinese money are empty. Some believe empty containers are transported only to receive Chinese state subsidies, introduced to encourage the use of said railways. Whilst the country is a hybrid economy and its government could exercise more powers over private enterprises than its Western counterparts, its resources are finite. By draining itself of them in such low-return projects, China will be weakened economically. Our connivance at, or rather allowance of the BRI, will despoil it of the means to attain the economic supremacy it desires.
China has been cautious of blanket agreements, fearing they might aggravate the local nationalists who are otherwise supportive of the government and spark discord with its diverse economic partners. Yet, it is unlikely to revive the BRI without sacrifices, and the West should ensure it continues to confide in the initiative’s current, flawed version by offering it measured resistance. The country’s involvement abroad has already compromised its reputation and saw plentiful projects cancelled or renegotiated, certainly not in favour of its government or the nationalist forces behind it. Furthermore, as more people in developing nations turn to China for education and employment opportunities, problems of domestic xenophobia, which surfaced earlier this year, will inevitably be discussed worldwide.
Beijing is fast approaching dangerous gridlock. The last thing it wants is a forced opportunity to wield global leadership, even if exclusively in China’s preferred realm of operation — trade.