Jaw-Jaw: The Geo-Economic Challenge of China’s Belt and Road Initiative
What exactly is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? What is the place of BRI in Xi Jinping’s foreign policy? What countries are involved in this massive project, and what is the likelihood that the grandest ambitions of BRI will be realized? Is China actually not a maritime power, but, rather, an aspiring continental power? Nadège Rolland and Brad Carson discuss these issues and much more in the new episode of “Jaw-Jaw.”
Nadège Rolland is senior fellow for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Her research focuses mainly on China’s foreign and defense policy and the changes in regional dynamics across Eurasia resulting from the rise of China. Before joining the National Bureau of Asian Research, Rolland was an analyst and senior adviser on Asian and Chinese strategic issues to the French Ministry of Defense (1994–2014). She is the author of the book China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (2017). Her articles have appeared in various publications, including the Washington Quarterly, Foreign Policy, the Diplomat, the Asian Open Forum, the Lowy Institute Interpreter, and Strategic Asia, and her commentary has been published by the Wall Street Journal, Libération, Les Echos, the Indian National Interest, Radio Free Asia, and BBC World Service.
Brad Carson is a professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001-2005 and was undersecretary of the army and acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness in the Obama administration. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
- Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, (Vintage, 2016)
- Howard French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, (Knopf, 2o17)
- Robert Van Gulik, Judge Dee Mysteries, (University of Chicago Press, 2010)
Brad: Nadege Rolland, Xi Jinping has said that the Belt and Road Initiative is one of his top priorities. Why do you think that it is, and can you explain exactly what he means by that?
Nadège: Well, he dubbed the project, “The project of the century.” So, this is very important for him. He had it written in the party’s charter and in the PRC’s Constitution last November … Sorry, last October and last March. It’s very key to his vision for China’s foreign policy. This initiative has been very personalized around Xi. It’s really his brainchild. Him, and probably a little circle of advisers, have probably been discussing about it for a while even before he came to power. Not sure of who exactly was involved. This is very difficult to find out, but it’s been an idea that’s been around for some time now.
Why did he launch it? It’s really his main tool for him to achieve what he also called when he just arrived in power in 2012 to achieve the China dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. What does this mean, is re-calibrating a China or replacing China at the heart of the broader region as a preponderant power, where the Chinese leadership should never have fallen from basically.
So, going back to this position of power original, and maybe even global power position. And so, is the dream, and BRI is the tool in a way to achieve that. It’s the instrument to achieve that. So, it has components and it has different drivers. So, one of the drivers is the economic pillar, the economic objectives, and include picking up the economic growth of the Chinese economy. That includes expanding markets for its companies abroad. That includes guaranteeing and securing the energy supplies. It includes also expanding the transactions in the [inaudible 00:02:40] in Chinese currency. So, that’s trying to consolidate China’s economic power.
It has a very domestic component to it, which is also bringing development to provinces that have been left behind. You know China’s economic development is mostly more vibrant on the coastal areas, and most of the … I mean, a big part of this huge territorial mass has been a little bit left behind this kind of economic development that’s really facing outwards. The years, China has put in place several programs and a big one around the 2000s. It’s what’s called the Greater Western development. So, the idea was to slowly bring this economic development that was mostly in the coastal areas to the heart of the country, to more remote provinces. And with BRI, it’s trying to get those provinces into a sandwich between the coastal areas and a broader neighborhood. That would be also more vibrant economically, and that will bring back development back to China itself.
So, that’s one of the pillars and the other one is more security-oriented and strategic. So, it’s about securing China’s near abroad in terms of the terrorist threat. So, Xinjiang is at the core of that, securing Xinjiang. It’s about, again, guaranteeing the energy supplies and circumventing what has been called the Malacca Dilemma, which is the choke point of the Malacca Strait where most of the energy supplies to China come through from the Middle East and Africa.
And so, diversifying the pipelines and supplies, energy supplies, coming through the land or through the Indian Ocean. There’s a meta strategic objective, which is expanding China’s influence and assertion of power, to the detriment of the U.S. And here, we are more in sort of a back-to-you geopolitical basics, which is the expansion of this continental power to balance against the naval power basically. So, all different layers that people could think are very dispersed and don’t make sense really, but fitting together, fitting them all together, you have this very vicious version, again, for China as the preponderant power in the region.
Brad: Can you talk a bit about the origins of it? So, five years ago, Xi Jinping, in two separate speeches, one in Indonesia, one in Kazakhstan, announced the beginnings of this. It’s changed a little bit over time, at least its name has. We in the west once called it One Belt, One Road. We now call it Belt and Road Initiative. Can you talk a bit about the history of it over the last five years, and even something as simple as this kind of nomenclature here in the west of how we’ve changed how we call it and [if] there’s reasons for that?
Nadège: Well, we changed it because the Chinese translation for it has changed. And there’s been some guidelines from the central government for that to happen. So, the names in Chinese are still the same. So, it’s the Silk Road Economic Belt. That’s the continental component of it. And there’s the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, which is the maritime component of it. So, in Chinese, they don’t have acronyms because they don’t have letters, so they take pieces of the words. And so, in Chinese, it becomes One Belt, One Road because it’s elements of the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st century Maritime Silk Road. That’s why it’s called this way. So, it’s sort of packaging an acronym of the two components of it.
After a while, the Chinese central government has decided to call that an initiative for the outside world. And so, there were guidelines given by the central government to the translations, the communications, and the media components of the party. Because initially in the Chinese papers, the name attached to yī dài yī lù, One Belt, One Road, was strategy. And they thought that this idea of strategy is going to create some suspicions from the outside world. So, you don’t call it strategy, and they forbid, actually, the use of strategy attached to Y. So, now they replaced it by Chàngyì, which is the initiative. So, it’s more inclusive, and it resonates better with how they want to portray it to the outside world. Something that’s more inclusive, that’s more open, and that everybody can appropriate in some way.
Brad: Can you explain exactly what it is? You can see maps off the internet about the BRI and it includes a lot of rail routes, some that go into Rotterdam and into northern Europe. There’s also a maritime component of this.
So, in terms of the infrastructure of the Belt and Road initiative, what are we actually talking about?
Nadège: So, there are lots of maps, but none of them have, are official from … there’s no official Chinese map that lays it out. At the beginning, I think in 2014, there was one published by Xinhua, the Chinese news agency. It was just drawing a big brush stroke over the Eurasian continent and another one over the Indian Ocean, through the Mediterranean up to Europe. There were more notional strokes than there were actual ones. So, you can define it broadly along those two strokes. First of all, those two big brushstrokes have evolved since the last five years. They have expanded to the Arctic, to Oceania, to the entire African continent, and to parts of Latin America as well. So, it’s become a more comprehensive and global endeavor. There’s also one in the cyber space and one in the space. So, really it includes all the new frontiers as well.
There’s also six different economic corridors that all start from China and go into like a hub-and-spoke, basically, scheme, or as you say, hub-and-spoke shape around China, connecting China to different regions of the world. So, Southeast Asia, and then there’s one through Myanmar and India, Bangladesh, and then there’s one through Russia up to Europe, and there’s the Maritime ones. There’s one through Pakistan. And the idea is to, again, is to connect China to all these other countries through a set of not just infrastructure projects. But from the beginning, Xi Jinping explained that there are five activities that go within the Belt and Road. The first one is what they call policy coordination. So, it’s basically going to coordinate the economic development policies of the local countries with the Belt and Road objectives.
Second one is infrastructure building. And the third one is unimpeded trade. So again, trying to trade with those regions. The fourth one is financial integration. So, there’s a financial integration component to it as well. People don’t really pay attention to as much as the infrastructure side. And the fifth link or connectivity is people-to-people exchanges. And that’s also something that people don’t really pay attention to. But to me, over the years, this aspect has become probably the most interesting and the most important of this project. China has launched a series of cooperations, trainings of students from Belt and Road countries. Training is of journalists, as well as security-oriented cooperation with a lot of these countries, that have accelerated under the impulse of the Belt and Road project. So, these are the different layers of Belt and Road. We’re really talking about something that has many, many different layers.
When I started my research, I wanted to understand what this was all about. And after a while, I pictured it in my mind as an artichoke, because then you peel off several layers of it. Yes, that one is also attached to the core of it and this one too and that one too, and then you need to go to what really the core of it is, and that’s more complicated to find out.
Brad: There are two numbers that are often thrown about in discussing the BRI. One is how much money is involved, and the media often implores that between $1 trillion and $1.3 trillion U.S. dollars are what the BRI is expecting to invest.
And the second number is number of countries involved with this, because you mention it seems to be ever-expanding. Sometimes people list 20 countries. Sometimes 60 countries. Are those the right numbers to think about in terms of the size of the BRI?
Nadège: So, the first number, $1 trillion, $1.3 trillion, I think they are based on, actually, promises of investments made at different points by China itself and attached to it. I don’t think officially as far, as I can remember, I don’t think officially the Chinese leadership said, okay, we’re going to invest $1 trillion in this.
I think this is a calculation of different promises that have been made. They’re good trackers of the investments. Derek Caesars at AEI is doing this, so you can follow concretely what kind of money and what kind of amounts of money have been invested in Belt and Road countries.
As far as the numbers are concerned, when the first report from Beijing was published in 2015 trying to explain to the outside world what this was all about, and I think back then they included 64 countries plus China, so 65. And again, most of them were along those two big brushstrokes that I mentioned earlier in Eurasia, in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and pieces of Eastern Africa.
The latest report that I’ve seen that has been put together by a Chinese entity back in Beijing. It’s a summary of progress over the year. It’s been updated every year. The assessment of the progress includes a 113 countries and institutions that are on board, so that’s how they count it.
Brad: Well, you mentioned a moment ago that there are both economic reasons for pursuing this from the Chinese perspective, as well as strategic reasons. I’ll talk about the economic ones first because you write that the 2008 financial crisis was a key moment in Chinese thinking. And lot of people we’ve talked to on the podcast discuss how to influence Xi Jinping’s other views of how China was going to assert itself in the world. Do you know about the economic reasons for it? Because one of the criticisms you hear of the BRI is that this is a Chinese mercantilist project, that they have their own internal problems, that their growth is driven by cheap exports as well as massive infrastructure investments, which is not sustainable over the long haul.
But now, the BRI is the way for them to stay in the infrastructure business, to do what they’ve done so well over the last 30 years. And therefore, they’re really in some ways postponing a day of reckoning for reorganizing their economy. So, can you talk about their motivations economically, as well as maybe this criticism that people have of it?
Nadège: One thing that I keep bumping into when I talk to people about Belt and Road is how much we apply our own framework. And if something appears different, we still want to put it in that pigeonhole or in a framework that’s familiar to us. Because I don’t know, it’s more reassuring and it’s more familiar.
And so, if it doesn’t fit with our own model, with our own way we’re thinking about it, we dismiss it either as not effective or as doomed to fail somehow, because it’s not like what we do. And so therefore, there’s a problem with it, and therefore it’s not going to work. I think here, again, when I look at how people in China are writing and saying about it, I really spend most of my time doing just that. The economy component of Belt and Road is both trying to sustain a level of activity that will allow the government to sustain employment of those large SOEs. This is connected —
Brad: The state-owned enterprises.
Nadège: The state-owned enterprises. Yes. There are large condominiums that employ, again, hundreds of thousands of people, and that’s very important in terms of social stability, and therefore brings back the problem of social stability and political stability for the Chinese Communist Party.
So, they need to keep a level of employment for these workers. And after the global financial crisis in 2008, the Chinese economy, just like the rest of the global economies, had a shock, and the government sent out an economic package to keep up with the growth and invested a lot into the same infrastructure, basically, within the Chinese territory. It helped for a while, but then it created a lot of overcapacity and the economic growth was less important than it used to be in the 1990s, or end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s. And so, how to sustain this level of economic growth actually with that re-forming in the way we define reforms, more liberal, more open, etc., is why they chose to do it this way.
So, it’s continuing with this state-led subsidized economy, but now instead of investing into the Chinese infrastructure, because it’s been saturated in their own country, now trying to export it and to find new markets for it elsewhere. At the same time, as you know, China has an industrial policy that’s very proactive into domains that are not so much linked to those highly polluting or heavy industries, but that look into more high-end technologies, high-tech sectors. And so, the main objective of the China 2025 or the internet plus strategies. And so, I see it as a two-pronged movement.
The first is to consolidate and to keep up with this employment, to keep up with this economic model, while at the same time gearing up for stepping up on the technological ladder.
Brad: And how will the BRI help them step up the technological ladder? I mean, these investments in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, how does that help them move into AI or these high-level technologies that they do aspire to go into?
Nadège: Well, there’s a clear big data component to Belt and Road as well. Again, when you think about those infrastructure projects, don’t just picture railroads or port facilities. There’s also a lot of digital investment, fiber-optic networks, and also all the softwares that go with it. And again, I think this is also seen by the Chinese government as a promising market because of the data. I’ve heard someone saying that data is the new oil. So definitely this is what’s behind this also, which is having access to the digital networks of these emerging countries or developing countries, bringing that data to China is going to help with all those algorithms. And I’m not a technician, so I can’t really explain in detail what it means, but my sense is that it’s going to be extremely helpful, also, in domains that are not just about pure heavy industry.
Brad: And let’s talk about the geo-strategic aspect of it too, which you’ve already mentioned. Part of it is they do have issues internally. They have parts of the country that are not as well developed as the coastal regions are, Xinjiang, Tibet. Places that are unruly to begin with. And in much of your writing you talk about the three evils that the Chinese talk about, separatism, terrorism, and extremism, and how the BRI might be able to do that.
Can you talk about maybe how they see BRI as hopefully integrating these rather restive places, within their own boundaries?
Nadège: Restive, I don’t like this to be associated with places like Tibet and Xinjiang. This is a word that’s used by Beijing, by the regime itself.
Brad: What word would you prefer then? Because we talk about those, because I think it’s interesting, right? What is going on in places like Xinjiang is now of great public interest.
Nadège: I think the regime sees those areas as problematic because of different reasons. First, they’re not Han Chinese and they’re ethnically different. They’re religiously different obviously. And so, everything that does not conform to the Communist Party’s views is seen as problematic. And the way that the party has tried to deal with both Tibet and Xinjiang, I mean historically, was to try to crush the dissent as much as they could. It’s also the same approach that they have in their discourse when they talk about terrorism and the solutions for terrorism. They have this different approach as ours, which is that terrorism is motivated by the lack of economic development basically, and so if you offer some economic development solutions, then people will be happy to have their work and to be prosperous, and they won’t think about going out and exploding things or attacking or carrying terrorist attacks.
I’m not judging anything here. I’m just saying that this is a different perspective on what is needed to cope with those problems. And I think that’s also the rationale behind BRI, because Xinjiang is sitting, as you know, at the border of Central Asian republics that also have been coping with problems of religious extremism.
And the fear for the party is that terrorist elements might come from Afghanistan or from the Middle East through the Central Asian republics, through Xinjiang, and that will cause a problem to national security. And so, part of their response to this is, okay, if we bring development to those areas, they will be more peaceful. That’s the rationale behind it. Of course, in Xinjiang, they tried to do that, and it was accompanied also with a massive Han population influx. There are more Han people in Xinjiang then there are Uyghurs local populations now. And it’s also the benefits of these investments in this economic development usually go to the Han population more than the local population. And now of course, over the last few months and I think maybe a year now, we’ve seen what’s going on in Xinjiang with the incarceration of the Uyghur population into those camps that are meant to basically destroy the identity of the people who are incarcerated there through different means that include, apparently, since there are some reports coming out of there, but it’s difficult to know what exactly is going on. It includes torture and other means.
So, it’s not just about economic development, if you see what I mean. There are other techniques that are in use.
Brad: Well, they say now that perhaps up to 10% of the Uyghur population there could be in these camps. And just recently, they announced, I saw in the paper that a million Han Chinese were invited to occupy the homes of people who’d been displaced.
So, I think one of the interesting questions that is related to BRI, is it seems as if the Chinese have adopted a strategy, that through demographic change in Xinjiang, and Tibet too perhaps, with the influx of Han Chinese, they can change the political culture, the climate, and keep it more closely integrated to Beijing and the heart of China. Is that strategy going to work?
Nadège: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I don’t know. I would feel like there’s going to be more resistance against it, internally and externally. But really, when you are at this level of crushing dissent in the nub, even before anyone has done anything, right? It’s becoming more difficult to resist against it.
It’s like a huge machinery, almost a totalitarian machinery, that comes down on you and you cannot move, you cannot do anything. You’re under threat all the time. So, will that work? I don’t know. As a human being, I hope not and that’s a good question. The external resistance to it, I think there’s been some media report out there. I don’t see really much of a coalition of countries, or responses really, to do something about this, to really respond more forcefully and demand that Beijing changes this. I think most of the countries are very timid in their response to that. So, I don’t know if it will work or not.
Brad: I think one of the new things I did learn from reading your work is the geo-strategic ambitions of China and the BRI, as a response to the U.S. resistance to what’s going on in the Western Pacific. So, you quote in some of your work intellectuals in China who talk about moving West, rather than moving East and pushing into the South and East China Sea, where Japan, the Philippines, the United States will resist those kind of things and maybe increasingly do so. Off to the West, they see this idea that we can increase our power and become perhaps a dominant force on the Eurasian landmass. That’s something that surprised me. I wasn’t thinking about those ambitions for them. Can you talk a little bit about kind of what these Chinese intellectuals are seeing strategically about what the BRI could do for them?
Nadège: I think for that you need to go back to the basics of geopolitics. Actually, the Chinese strategic planners and thinkers are really very interested and refer to it a lot in their assessment of the situation, of the kind of big picture situation.
So, they’re different, very prominent Chinese thinkers who have been working a lot on that. And also, throughout its history, China has traditionally been a continental power. So again, they go back to what’s more familiar to their own experience and their own history. So, asserting this dominance over the continent makes more sense for them than becoming a Mahanian power in some sense. But there’s also, I feel in, again, from reading all of these articles or documents, there’s also a sense of really balancing. So, if you exert your power on the continental mass, again, which is not a small portion of the world. It’s Eurasia and goes through all those different corridors up to Africa, and that. If you look at the map and consolidate your influence over this, then the U.S. really looks like a distant power, like an island, out there, sort of isolated from that consolidated landmass. I think that’s sort of what motivates it strategically. Some of the Chinese strategic thinkers … I mean, there have been a lot of debate going on for a long time about whether China should also be a naval power.
In the mid-2000s, there were public responses. There were two leading experts, one a proponent of the naval side and one a proponent of the continental side. And they had a three or four series of long articles arguing against each other. That was very interesting to follow. And the continental proponent was saying power doesn’t come from the sea. It comes from the land. This is where the activity, the economic activity takes place. This is where the political power is. And you can go out on the sea from the land. So basically, we need to consolidate that first. Whereas the proponent of the maritime and naval power was saying you need to control those sea lanes of communications in the same way that the Americans have done, because this is the sinews of our economy.
Brad: One of the things they are building with the BRI are number of pipelines, and you’ve already mentioned the Malacca problem they have, that China imports most of its oil. 80% goes through the Strait of Malacca. It’s estimated that in 10 or 15 years 80% of its oil supplies will be imported. And of course, that’s a choke point. And they’re aware of that.
Brad: Is it possible that the BRI could seriously alleviate that problem for them? Could they create enough pipeline capacity, that this idea that the U.S. would somehow put an embargo through the Strait of Malacca, that they would have alternatives to that? Or is there simply no way to really get around the problem they have with the sea lanes of communication importing of oil?
Nadège: I think there’s no way … If you want to have the full extent of your energy supply, there’s no way you can get around it. However, it’s a good hedging bet. So, if something happens, if an embargo or a blockade, because that’s what we’re talking about here, the American blockade around the South China Sea ever happens, then it gives you, if you have alternative pipelines coming through Central Asia, again on the land, or through Myanmar or Pakistan, it alleviates a little bit. And if there’s a naval blockade, you’re at war, and so your economy is going to be very different and the needs you’re going to have are going to be different as well. You’re going to have to make choices to pump up your defense industries and stuff like that.
So, not totally replace but alleviate the problem certainly. Again, there are studies in Chinese language that make some projection into the future of different supplying countries, that could be helpful on the land, and covers a lot of the demands actually.
Brad: One of the criticisms people make of the BRI is that it’s just really a Christmas tree upon which they’re putting every kind of economic project, and at many times they include in the BRI projects that have been around for 20 years. Qatar and Pakistan, as an example of that.
So, is there really a coherent plan behind the BRI? It now involves Latin America, you mentioned. Half the world seems to be part of the BRI. And when everyone’s a part of it, it seems like truly no one is a part of it, right? That this is just some kind of propaganda effort almost. I mean, is there any truth in that?
Nadège: I’ll go back to what I said earlier, which is if you look at something and it doesn’t compute with your own framework, then you tend to dismiss it. So, it’s partly true. It’s partly true that it has become a little bit of everything. You have fashion shows that are … Belt and Road fashion shows, and you have Belt and Road [inaudible 00:35:16] conventions, or … I don’t know. It’s a little bit everything and everywhere.
And it’s also true that some of these projects have been initiated before 2013. However, it’s managed at the very top level of the Chinese party state apparatus. There’s a politburo leading small group that manages this at the top level of it. The National Development Reform Commission manages it on a daily basis. All the different actors in China and entities in China have been called to make the necessary effort to support the vision from the center. So, I suppose you could look at it from both angles and say, oh, it’s very dispersed and it’s a little bit about everything. But really, there’s a pattern to it. And I think on the sea, and there’s a … How do you say? There’s a momentum that’s been created with it.
And again, the fact that it’s written in the Constitution, the fact that Xi Jinping made 42 speeches on this topic for the last five years, shows you that it’s very important for the Chinese leadership and it’s different from what it used to be. It’s not regular public diplomacy. It’s not regular propaganda campaign. There’s something different to it.
Brad: There’s two big obstacles for the execution of the BRI. One is, especially in Central Asia, you have organized crime. It’s a very difficult environment. The investment opportunities may not be that appealing to people. And the second, it does also seem, and much is now being written about it, it seems like in the West, that there is a reaction to Chinese influence, that in Kazakhstan people are rioting, fearful of Chinese purchase of local property, that the debt problems that Sri Lanka has incurred in giving their port for a 99 year lease, and that Myanmar and other nations like that are taking a slightly more distant approach to BRI.
So, can you talk about whether they’re going to be able to execute on this? I say this because you’ve written on this subject a lot, and about this particular issue, and there now seems to be an increasing view in the West that BRI is one big mistake. And you’ve said we should be hesitant about characterizing it as a mistake yet, even though there are some challenges. Can you talk about both in the challenges and why perhaps you think it’s a little premature to be writing it off?
Nadège: What’s interesting in the western commentary of it was that when it’s just started, people were very skeptical about it already. They thought “what’s that exactly?” We don’t understand it. There’s no map. There’s no plan. There’s no list of countries.
Brad: No Excel spreadsheet with all of the —
Nadège: Yes, and also, there’s no … What is it? And so, they were skeptical and dismissive about it, thinking that doesn’t make sense and economically that doesn’t make sense, and they won’t have any financial return.
Well, investing in infrastructure is not really a place or sector where you invest if you really want to have financial returns anyway. So yes, they’re building roads and they’re going to be different from that. So, after this sort of skepticism about it, now the next wave is the discontent wave, the criticism wave. “You see? China is using a debt trap diplomacy everywhere.”
There’s only one example of that. It’s Sri Lanka, and I’m not even a 100% certain that there was from the start an intention to do it this way. I think it’s really interesting of how it’s an illustration of how China does go with the flow and uses the propensity of things. This is sort of general direction, but then how exactly is that going to take shape depends on the local situation, depends on the local factors. And Sri Lanka, this is a story that predates BRI, that predates 2013. And I think they just seized the opportunity and it happens to be very strategically critical.
But I am struggling with this idea that they’re doing it intentionally to trap those countries into debt. I don’t think that they’re stupid. I don’t think that they want that, because in the end, they’re going to have … This is their money that they’re investing and their money that they’re lending. So, at some point, they would want to have it back as well. So, having those countries that cannot repay, it’s not good for the Chinese economy as well.
So, I think we really need to differentiate or to look at it from a case-by-case scenario or case-by-case study. I think people tend to be very dismissive about it. And that worries me actually.
Brad: You’re European yourself, from France. You’ve worked in the French government. The maps of the BRI, you can sometimes see, go right into the heart of Europe.
Brad: And you’ve written that some of the European countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, are eager for Chinese funds and there are examples of people who have tailored their positions. The Czech Republic, for example, used to be aggressive about human rights violations in Tibet. They relented on that. The Norwegians, of course, after they were sanctioned by the Chinese on the salmon, so they will stop complaining so much about these kind of things. What’s the European view of this as China encroaches with the ambition seemingly of having much closer ties with Europe?
Nadège: It’s difficult to describe what the European view is because you could go to different capitals and have a different view of it. I think what Belt and Road has done really is shrinking the geographical distance, and suddenly China is at the gates right here with increased investments in different economic sectors that are really important for the sustainability and prosperity of our economies in Europe.
And probably that more than the infrastructure investments have started to ring bells in different capitals in Germany and France to some level. What’s also becoming more important in the European context is the 16-plus-one framework. So, this is a Chinese led also kind of framework. I suppose this is the best way to define it. That includes 16 European countries from central, eastern, and southern Europe. E.U. and non-E.U. members. The plus one is China.
It started in late 2012, and since Belt and Road, it has nominally been included on the Belt and Road label. So basically, this is an instrument for Beijing to deploy its Belt and Road agenda within Europe, within those 16 countries, and that causes problems because of what’s going on in Europe and the rise of populism and the difficulties, the political difficulties, that are going on. Some of the countries that have been aggregated to Europe after the end of the Cold War are now leaning towards a more authoritarian model, and China can help with that as well. So, I think they don’t see China as a threat for themselves as much as they see Russia as a threat. And they see China as an economic partner and possible investor in their economies. Plus the fact that they have this kind of authoritarian streak to it, and that’s kind of appealing for them too.
Brad: So, how should the United States be approaching the BRI? Should we be rooting for it to fail? Should we be working with our allies, such as Japan, to offer alternative funds for these countries that are so needy after all? What should the U.S. approach to BRI be?
Nadège: Well, I think first of all, the US cannot match dollar-for-dollar what China is doing. Rooting for it to fail, I don’t think that this is what you really want either. Because again, it answers some actual needs. Really, the problem is not the infrastructure itself. It’s the standards that go with them, with those projects, or the lack thereof. So, I think creating or working on the alternatives is very important.
As I said before, some countries are left without any alternative. And so, they go back to Beijing even if the loans or interests are so high for them. So, providing maybe advice before those contracts happen, working in partnership with other countries, but I wouldn’t want the US also to play a whack-a-mole game. You know? China is investing in this sport or in this fiber optic network. And the U.S. is coming, or other allies are coming and say, “Okay. Well, we’re going to help you with this too.” I think this is not an efficient way to look at it. Really after all these years, Belt and Road has taken such an important place into the Chinese foreign policy, that sometimes for me it’s equal to when people ask what should be done with Belt and Road, I feel the answer is what should be done with China’s rise?
This is what it’s all about. Since this is an instrument that will serve the rise of China as the preponderant regional power, what is it that we can do in the face of that? So, you see? I think putting it in those terms really sets the framework a little bit differently than looking at it from a pure infrastructure endeavor. It’s much broader than that. And so, the way we answer it or respond to it has to be put in that broader framework of what should be done with China’s rise, which is a whole different conversation.
Brad: Well, we end every episode of Jaw-Jaw by asking our guests to recommend two or three books that people who are really interested in this subject might go to as well. What would be your recommendations?
Nadège: One of them, if you want to look at the historical perspective, I would recommend Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads. I think that this is a very … It’s a historical perspective of what the Silk Roads used to mean and also ends up with what it could mean in the future as well.
I like also another book that was written by a journalist, Howard French. It’s called Everything Under the Heavens, which explores different regions around Asia and put it in the context of China’s previous imperial history. So, that’s also, I think, interesting. And last, it has nothing to do really with either silk roads or China’s politics or geopolitics, it’s a series of novels that were written in the 1950s and 60s on the Judge Dee. Have you heard of that? It’s an investigator and a judge, under the Tang Dynasty, so it’s more for entertainment than for historical or geopolitical background. But I find it very interesting, because it brings you back into the imperial courts, and it’s a mystery solving adventure. So, I like that.
Brad: We will put links to all of those books on the website and the show notes for the podcast. So, Nadege Rolland, thank you for being a guest today on “Jaw-Jaw” and for the discussion about the BRI.
Nadège: Thank you very much for having me. It was fun.