Ulysses McGuinness | February 5, 2018
Responding To: Opportunities and Challenges on the Belt and Road Initiative
From History to Glory: Thoughts on U.S.-China Cooperation on the BRI
The nostalgia towards ancient China, whether it was as prosperous as the great Tang Dynasty or rather backward like the last Qing Dynasty, is not mainstream. But, when President Xi Jinping put forward the blueprint of “Silk Road Economic Belt” in his speech in Kazakhstan in September 2013, and proposed the idea of building a “Maritime Silk Road” in Indonesia later the same year, the historical Silk Road was back in the spotlight, expanded with new regions and infused with new ideas.
After four years, the proposal has evolved into a top-tier national goal, or strategy, though it has been officially announced as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) instead of Strategy, with 70 countries directly involved, an estimated $1 trillion in total investment, and a focus on infrastructure construction in cooperating countries. BRI bears more ambition and aims to achieve more glory than the ancient Silk Road, a trading network further established after Ambassador Zhang Qian was sent to Central Eurasia by Emperor Wu in the Han Dynasty, primarily in exchange for “heavenly horses” with gorgeous silk that only China was able to produce during that time.
And, the BRI has raised more concern from nations who have been on board and yet remain onlookers. The universal apprehension is that the BRI contains geopolitical meanings, as the infrastructure it is now building traverses insecure areas or contentious zones. Other concerns are that the trade among countries might be faced with a market order which is not equal enough, or that the Thucydides Trap is yawning as the rise of China’s power poses a threat to the “old money” United States.
Indeed, there are challenges for both the United States and China. No great country would be happy to see their authority challenged or shares diminished. The U.S. government tried to discourage its allies from joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank but in the end failed. Also during the President Obama administration, China was excluded from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), while China herself was actively building her own networks and orders.
But do these mean the end of U.S.-China cooperation? Definitely not. With a shift to focus on the domestic economy following President Trump’s policies, such as the withdrawal from TTIP and Trans-Pacific Partnership, a slowing and softening of the BRI implementation and other new situations, there will be greater possibility of a new type of Sino-U.S. relationship, as well as opportunities. Personally speaking, the United States is not exactly the counterpart of China in strategy-making—though both countries are often compared since being the two biggest leading powers—the United States is young compared to China, enjoyed the reputation of enterprise, democracy, and distribution of powers, taking bold steps if necessary; China is more cautious, seeking a softer or sometimes oblique way to achieve her goals.
One opportunity of the BRI is that it has provided a chance for both countries to seek a new model of cooperation and global engagement. The former U.S. Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers addressed in a speech in November that the current situation is a “parallel play,” since “the West does its thing; China does its thing.” And there are more changes to welcome, as the political environment is still evolving, which requires more adaptation from the Sino-U.S. cooperation model. Meanwhile, the BRI has started to yearn for more personnel: professional people specializing in construction, materials, languages, care providing, etc. Here are some pictures from the New Yorker, depicting views along the Belt. It is magnificent to see tens of thousands of workers contributing to this program, turning desert-like places into areas equipped with railways, pipelines, and bridges. The need for more specialists perhaps will take on the responsibility to recruit global talents, which the United States seems to shirk now with a tightened immigration policy.
I am relatively ashamed now since I realized how little I knew about my own country’s history, as well as my schoolmates in Xiangya of whom I asked about the Han Dynasty and BRI. History is worth remembering—French President Macron visited China recently, starting in Xian, the capital of the ancient Han and Tang Dynasty, bringing a horse as a gift—and always teaches us lessons. For the ancient Silk Road, trade not only brought in economic prosperity, but also promoted the dissemination of techniques, arts, and cultures, such as Buddhism, which was transmitted to China during Han Dynasty. Negative things happened, too, since some diseases such as the plague also prevailed because of the trading activities. To put it into today’s context, these are also challenges we need to address along the way of development: the environmental problems, the health and security of workers, the possible conflicts among politically contentious areas or those differing in values and cultures, etc. Finding a sustainable method in the new Silk Road’s development, while bearing the old history in mind, is the way to achieve glory, a glory belonging to all nations participating in, and the people working behind, it.
Hongjin Xu is a fifth-year major in psychiatry in the Xiangya School of Medicine at Central South University in Hunan Province, China.
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