A Bellwether of China’s Role in Global Governance
China, a rising power in the US-led international order, has significantly expanded its global clout since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013. The country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in particular, reflects a more assertive Chinese leadership on the global stage and plays a central role in Xi’s fight for the “great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” Yet the speed at which China has sought to leverage its growing economic power in international affairs has evoked concern. Capitals from New Delhi to London fear that China is challenging the existing global order in an attempt to replace it with a Chinese arrangement. If left unaddressed, these reservations could limit foreign support for the BRI and even generate pushback against China’s global governance efforts.
The international community — including both developing countries and traditional major powers — currently views the BRI through a zero-sum, geopolitical lens. If China’s initiatives are to be successful, Beijing needs to lessen distrust of its intentions by focusing on its domestic aspirations, underlining its acceptance of responsibilities as a major stakeholder in the international order, and highlighting its non-monetary investments and areas for mutually beneficial international cooperation.
A Focus on Domestic and Regional Development
According to the Chinese government, the primary aim of the BRI is to promote regional connectivity and China’s domestic development, not to challenge US leadership; it sees the BRI as a win-win that will benefit both China and the other countries involved. The initiative was identified as a key priority of the country’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020). As of May 2017, the Ministry of Commerce estimates that China has invested more than $50 billion in BRI countries since 2013 and Chinese businesses have built 56 economic and trade cooperation zones, generating $1.1 billion in tax revenue and creating 180,000 local jobs.
Through the BRI, China seeks to address its imbalanced domestic development by extending projects to the country’s less developed western provinces and addressing issues of overcapacity. For example, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will connect the city of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. Likewise, the China-Europe Railway Express, linking western China to Europe, provides opportunities to further trade and economic ties. The BRI also creates opportunities for surpluses in construction-related industries – such as iron, steel, and cement manufacturing – to be absorbed in Belt and Road regions. In addition, Chinese enterprises can benefit from the new markets, resources and relatively lower operational costs in BRI countries.
Although many countries along the Belt and Road, including Nepal, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, welcome China’s effort to promote regional cooperation and development, other countries have raised concerns that China will use its rising economic power to reshape the current global economic order to reflect its own interests or to gain leverage over developing countries that owe large debts to Beijing. Indeed, the question of whether China is a status quo or a revisionist power has been debated for years. As Beijing has gradually abandoned its low-profile diplomacy to seek a more prominent and active role on the global stage – including by creating the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, more assertively defending its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and increasing its involvement in multilateral institutions – these questions have once again come to the fore. Given these concerns, China should continue to reiterate that its primary focus is on promoting domestic development.
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