Belt and Road Initiative: China has plans to take over the world
[Book extract] No other organised project or idea can rival it in this respect.
The Belt and Road is the Chinese plan to build a new world order replacing the US-led international system. If it succeeds, it is very likely that we shall use the name to refer to the new arrangements, much as we use “West” as shorthand for the existing order. And thus the map of the Belt and Road is already in its fundamental traits the map of the world to come — as China imagines it. What do we see in this map?
China is the only country that can genuinely be said to be universal, to overstep its boundaries, extending its presence to distant geographies. This is the clearest marker of a superpower and therefore it is still today a distinctive trait of American power.
The map of the Belt and Road changes that familiar pattern. The United States disappears, having been moved from the obverse to the reverse. Japan, Australia and parts of Western Europe may want to preserve a privileged relationship with America, but China hopes that it will have enough leverage over them to ensure that those ties are weakened.
As for Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe, plans are more ambitious, as China intends to include them in its own orbit. In the new world order, Beijing can project power over two thirds of the world.
Other poles of power may retain their sovereignty, but they will be much more regional or even parochial.
They will struggle to influence events outside their borders or immediate region. And since China will control a qualified majority of the world economy and global public opinion, any direct confrontation with these other poles — even if they are able to combine — will have a predetermined winner.
The map tells a simple story of power and influence. More than a project or an initiative, the Belt and Road is a movement, representing the slow but ineluctable expansion of Chinese influence. Wherever it finds a vacuum or an area of little resistance, it moves in. Where it finds opposition, it stops, if only momentarily. A colour map is a good representation: check back a few months later and some countries or regions may have changed from their original grey as they join the Belt and Road.
The core of the old order — in North America and Western Europe — may one day join as well, but in their case only the symbolic recognition that China is the new global superpower will be in order.
Start with the map and the story will follow. In formal terms it has much in common with a thriller. There is a plan or a plot to take over the world, but everything else is radically uncertain. Chinese leaders muse about their intimation that we have arrived at a critical turn in world history, but the way they approach it is much closer to Lenin than to Marx.
Nothing is pre-determined, everything is to be decided by the virtue of the participants, their ability to grasp a unique and possibly fleeting opportunity. They would agree with at least the second half of the dictum — common in Europe during the Renaissance — that fortune is a woman whose hair falls over her face so she is hard to recognise and bald at the back so she is hard to grab once she has passed. The United States may yet preserve its dominium for a long time. The existing order may survive if China makes some of the same mistakes it has made in the past.
It is a very human story, full of doubts and hesitations, dreams and fears. Sometimes, as the head of the China Foreign Policy Center of the Central Party School, Luo Jianbo, has said, the feeling is “that everyone is drunk and we are alone, that all nations are in decline and we are rising.” But other times, deep doubts seep in. Perhaps China will never overcome its limitations; perhaps the opportunity has already passed.
Will Chinese leaders and the Chinese people rise to the occasion? Will they know how to avoid past mistakes and, more importantly, will they recognise the moment of truth, the moment when the fate of the world hangs in the balance? China is approaching the centre of the world stage to an extent that is unprecedented, it is approaching the realisation of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people to an extent that is unprecedented, and it has the capacity and confidence to reach this goal to a degree that is unprecedented. How should it act?
Some among the leadership are already dissatisfied with an incremental approach and want to push more forcefully. Others want to keep a cool head and push for a clear understanding of China’s development and its place in the world as a necessary precondition for action. To me the debate seems to be an instance of the classical opposition between prudence and courage, the intellectual and the martial virtues.
Graham Allison has made the point that China’s rise is a story affecting our individual fates because in the end the question of whether a new world order will be born or the status quo pre-served is less important than the question of whether the outcome will be determined peacefully or whether China and America are destined for war.
As a rapidly ascending China challenges America’s predominance, the two nations risk falling into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides when he argued that it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable. His history provides a factual record of the choices Pericles and his fellow Athenians made of their own free will. Different choices would have produced different results, a lesson worth keeping in mind as we face a similar danger.
Finally, the story is a universal story in the sense that all dimensions of human life play their part in the course of events. The Belt and Road might even be said to resemble one of those Western classical novels where all the disciplines, all the sciences and all corners of human activity are deliberately included.
There will be room in this book for economics and cinema, history and philosophy, high politics and criminal intrigue. There will be short sections on shipping, on the steel industry, on digital technology, on mining and on textiles. The action takes place in different geographies, from Africa to Kazakhstan, from the Indian Ocean to the Mekong Delta, from the Balkans to Mongolia.
This is no accident. The Belt and Road is by design a project meant to encompass the whole world and the totality of human life. No other organised project or idea can rival it in this respect.
As Jonathan Hillman has put it, the “Belt and Road is so big it is almost impossible for one person to have mastery of it. Sometimes I wonder if China grasps the whole thing.”
The writer is Portuguese politician, political scientist, business strategist, and author.
(Excerpted with permission from publisher, Penguin Viking.)