Ulysses McGuinness | February 5, 2018
Responding To: Opportunities and Challenges on the Belt and Road Initiative
Will the Belt and Road Initiative Destabilize the International System?
Described by many as “Xi Jinping’s key foreign policy,” the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a plan for China to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure throughout countries along the Silk Road. Since the program began in 2013, the People’s Republic of China has invested about $150 billion per year across 68 countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Croatia, and Ukraine. China plans to spend an additional $1 trillion in the next decade. As described by the New York Times, the BRI envisions “global commerce on China’s terms.”
The United States is not currently involved with the BRI. In 2015, then-President Obama expressed hesitation towards joining the initiative, stating, “If it’s not run well, then it could be negative thing…and what we don’t want to do is just be participating in something and providing cover for an institution that does not end up doing right by its people.” In May 2017, the Trump administration demonstrated greater support for the program by sending National Security Council Senior Director for East Asia Matt Pottinger to the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing.
Increased participation in the BRI will give American companies greater access to consumer markets. One current BRI project, for instance, involves the drilling of hundreds of “tunnels and bridges to support a 260-mile railway, a $6 billion project that will eventually connect eight Asian countries.” This project alone will streamline commercial access to millions of consumers. As noted by Professor Dingding Chen of Jinan University, American firms are leading energy and financial services providers, so U.S. companies should have advantages in Belt and Road projects as long as these projects give equal access to all foreign firms.
Greater involvement in the BRI will also enable the United States to help eradicate poverty. As of 2017, more than 760 million people still live on less than a $1.90 a day. Historian Rutger Bregman argues that the crux of this issue is that “poverty is a huge waste of human capital,” pointing out that “the effects of living in poverty… correspond to losing fourteen points of IQ.” “Imagine,” Bregman suggests, “how many brilliant scientists, and entrepreneurs, and writers are now withering away in scarcity… Imagine how much energy and talent we would unleash if we got rid of poverty.” Celebrated novelist George Orwell echoes this sentiment in the novel Down and Out In Paris and London, stating, “the essence of poverty is that it annihilates the future.” By providing political and fiscal support for the BRI, the United States can play a crucial role in creating a more promising future for the globe.
Critics of U.S. involvement in the BRI might insist that American participation in the initiative could endanger the international system. Created in the 1940s and historically dominated by Western nations, the so-called ‘liberal order’ is stabilized by a network of political and economic institutions such as the UN and the WTO. Some argue that China’s aim is to destroy this system, and that the BRI is a manifestation of this intention. These observations, however, do not account for fundamental ideologies governing Chinese policy, and the mutually dependent nature of the relationship between China and the West.
First, respect for national sovereignty is integral to Chinese foreign policy. This principle is inspired by the “Century of National Humiliation,” a period between 1839 and 1949 when a weakened China was forced to cede extensive territories and imbalanced trade agreements to foreign powers. China scholar John Garver observes in Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China that memory of these tribulations “stands at the center of the political culture of the People’s Republic of China... [China has] an ardent determination to… prevent its recurrence.” By championing non-interference globally, China implicitly reinforces its own right to independent governance, and ensures that the “Century of National Humiliation” will never occur again. This emphasis renders China a conservative in the international system, with a vested interest in preserving the sovereign rights of nations through the UN and the existing political establishment.
Furthermore, China’s economy is inextricably bound to the current global order. Since then-president Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 introduction of the market-oriented Reform and Opening Policies, China has experienced unprecedented growth, including a GDP increase from $174.9 billion in 1977 to an estimated $1.119 trillion in 2016. China’s integration into the world economy further deepened with its entrance into the WTO in 2001. As a function of this incorporation, China is increasingly dependent on trade agreements with foreign nations, which the WTO helps negotiate and maintain. In short, as Professor G. John Ikenberry states in, “The Rise of China and the Future of the West,” “Chinese economic interests are quite congruent with the current global economic system--a system that is open and loosely institutionalized and that China has enthusiastically embraced and thrived in.” Upsetting this system would endanger Chinese economic prosperity, and the BRI poses no exception to this rule.
Jessie Dalman is a senior at Stanford University majoring in history with a concentration in conflict studies.
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