Responding to the new Silk Road

By Joseph Tse-Hei Lee 李榭熙  / 

Thu, May 18, 2017 - Page 8

In a world riddled with growing isolationism and protectionism, China has doubled its efforts to promote the “One Belt, One Road” initiative — also known as the new Silk Road — as a global vision of power projection and a comprehensive strategy of national development.

Appropriating the historical metaphor, the “Silk Road Economic Belt” means a variety of continental railroads and highways, oil and natural gas pipelines, and numerous China-funded transnational infrastructure projects that spread from Xian to the Gobi Desert and Central Asia and eventually Europe.

As a seaborne equivalent, the “21st century Maritime Silk Road” is composed of many carefully planned ports and terminals that radiate from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean to East Africa.

The “One Belt, One Road” initiative has several policy components. As an aspirational power, Beijing favors a global framework that relies on the mechanisms of diplomatic negotiation to resolve intra and inter-state disputes, as opposed to Washington’s preference for a security system based on coercive force.

This geopolitical thinking is in line with Beijing’s rhetoric about its peaceful rise, meaning that a powerful China would not threaten its neighbors, as the West did during the heyday of imperialism.

However, neighboring countries worry about China’s enormous energies and growing military influence.

On the economic front, the developing world is fascinated by the Chinese principles of diplomatic non-intervention, authoritarian governance and modernization through intensive labor industries.

China always prides itself on its slow process of governance change as a potential result of, not a wishful precondition for, economic growth and progress. It has positioned itself as a model of state-controlled development because the country embraced modernization from a status inferior to that of the West and Japan.

To advance this authoritarian mode of development, Beijing founded the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to support major infrastructure investment projects and formulated bilateral trading agreements with East, Southeast and Central Asian nations.

With its huge market, China is keen to create a “win-win” situation for neighboring states in the name of “mutual benefits” and “commonly-shared destinies.” The objective is to integrate neighboring economies into a Sino-centric order.

The extent to which this development would give rise to a Chinese economic union in Asia and whether Beijing’s influence would decline in the event of an economic slowdown is debatable, but China has effectively replaced the US as the largest trading partner of many Asian states.

Furthermore, China has implemented a pragmatic policy of mercantilism that links diplomatic and economic activities together. Many “One Belt, One Road” countries are becoming reliable resource suppliers and modest consumers of Chinese manufactured goods. By investing in these nations, China is determined to co-opt their political and economic elites, winning oil and natural gas deals and finding new markets for its products.

The key question for national leaders is how to accommodate a rising China without alienating the US and Russia. Evidently the local ruling elites are as calculative and pragmatic as their Chinese counterparts. They would simply align with China for immediate gains and maintain a collegial relationship with the US and Russia.

On the whole, the reasoning behind this global vision displays a great deal of pragmatism and opportunism in the Chinese grand strategy. In particular, China has given out countless amounts of financial aid that no other country could match.

Most Chinese investors in the “One Belt, One Road” countries are state-owned enterprises with strong government support. They are willing to make long term and risky business decisions, rather than pursue financial gains.

Undoubtedly, China’s political, economic and strategic clout has weakened US ties with longstanding allies such as the Philippines and South Korea. Given the remarkable outcomes of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative and the tendency of US President Donald Trump to cede influence in parts of Asia to China, it is time for Taiwan to articulate a coherent and effective counter strategy.

President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) “new southbound policy” has marked a good beginning of resetting Taiwan’s regional diplomacy and improving bilateral links through trade and development. Yet, much needs to be done to enhance the nation’s humanistic ties with global and regional civil society networks.

Only by doing so would it be possible to rebrand Taiwan as a feasible model of democratic governance, sustainable development and a knowledge-driven economy.

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York City.