The benevolent great power

China’s president Xi Jinping. Image via APEC 2013 Flickr.

In Mid-May, world leaders gathered at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing to learn about what could possibly be the most ambitious economic mega project in human history: China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR).

According to some estimates, the OBOR will encompass “4.4 billion people, 64 countries [with] a combined economic output of $21 trillion – roughly twice the annual gross domestic product of China, or 29 percent of global GDP.”

OBOR – launched in 2015 with an initial funding of $40 billion – is not only a foreign policy initiative, but also addresses some of the vulnerabilities of China’s political economy. The returns on investment-led growth in China are diminishing. Reforms of state owned enterprises (SOEs), which dominate the Chinese economy and face overcapacity in the labor-intensive steel sector, are politically sensitive. And, China still has vast foreign exchange reserves.

According to the Chinese government, 50 Chinese state-owned companies have invested in nearly 1,700 OBOR projects since 2013. In terms of financing, several state-owned, and multilateral players are involved in OBOR, including the Silk Road Fund, named for the land and maritime Silk Road, which has historically linked China to trade in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. Other players include the Export and Import Bank of China, the China Development Bank, and the BRICS-founded New Development Bank.

The most interesting player, however, is the recently founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which in 2016 already approved  $1.7bn in loans for OBOR. The AIIB is a direct challenge to the US-led international economic establishment, and through OBOR, aims to establish the Yuan as a true international currency. It is actively recruiting African countries. Three countries have so far been invited to be members of the AIIB: South Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia.

As Howard French emphasizes in his new book “Everything Under The Heavens”, it is crucial to understand the history of China’s relationship with the rest of the world to be able to grasp its contemporary worldview and ambitions. Imperial ambitions often go hand in hand with historical revisionism. With its deep, complex and contradictory historical archive, China is able to wield history against competitors and instrumentalize it in order to promote the myth of itself as the only exceptional and benevolent “Great Power.”

The figure of Zheng He exemplifies this. Zheng He was a Chinese imperial explorer and diplomat during the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644). He sailed an expeditionary armada, which according to French was equal in size to the “the combined fleets of Britain, France and Spain that fought the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.” Zheng He’s legacy is now being portrayed as the embodiment of China’s foreign policy of “harmonious co-existence” by Chinese historians and intellectuals. Chinese diplomacy has used Zhen’s legend to further its soft power throughout the Horn of Africa, where He’s expeditionary missions are said to have reached in the early 1400s.

African countries said to benefit most from the contemporary OBOR proposals include Egypt, Kenya and Djibouti, where China recently constructed its first overseas naval base, as well as a port, and a railway to neighboring Ethiopia.

As economist Branko Milanovic emphasizes, OBOR is a return to “hard stuff” in development assistance, referring to critical infrastructure such as ports, railroads, economic corridors and gas pipelines. One of OBOR’s flagship initiatives is the China-Pakistan Corridor (CPC), a $55bn project involving power plants, rail and infrastructure. It has caused regional rival India to boycott OBOR and snub the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, calling China’s plan “imperial”, and a “direct threat” to its “territorial sovereignty.”

For Chinese policymakers, OBOR signifies a return to “non-ideological development assistance,” which separates politics from “mutual self-interest,” according to Milanovic. Though it is true that China generally does not engage in conditionality, OBOR is still deeply ideological, and is shaped by a legacy of “foreign policy as asymmetric transactions,” which dates back to the tributary system of the Middle Kingdom. This is crucial given that other than a recent policy document published by China’s central planning body, OBOR largely remains a skeleton that still has to be filled with substance. As bargaining and negotiations over substance continue, China might employ this asymmetry bilaterally to assert its dominance and deter opposition. For instance, despite Singapore’s prominent support for OBOR, it’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, was explicitly not invited to the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, a snub which is widely believed to stem from Singapore’s vocal support for US rebalance in the region.

Western critics, on the other hand, have warned that OBOR resembles Britain’s old colonial trading network, and could exacerbate African countries’ subservient commodity supplier relationship with China. Even Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was one of the two African leaders to attend the Belt and Road Forum (the other one being Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia; Egypt’s Trade and Industry Minister was also present), has decried China’s large trade surplus with African countries in a recent interview, and has called on China to “open itself to African goods.” Though these views highlight important characteristics about the asymmetric bilateral relationships that characterize some of China’s involvement in Africa, they also trivialize the agency of African stakeholders. This includes paying attention to crucial negotiation details, such as debt terms, quality standards, and local content/labor requirements. In a series of tweets recently, Kenyan political scientist Ken Opalo, responding to a New York Times article portraying China as the world’s new colonial power, emphasized the agency of African policymakers and called on them to get those critical infrastructures built, and “ignore their self-appointed guardians.” In the context of Kenya’s trade deficit with China, Kenyans might also want to ask the Kenyatta administration why Kenya isn’t in a better position to take advantage of the relocation of labor-intensive industries from China. Potential African beneficiaries of OBOR should be neither naïve nor dismissive, and seek the best possible deal.

Media and citizen scrutiny can go a long way: Pakistan’s leading newspaper, Dawn, recently leaked documents of China’s original proposals in the CPC negotiation, putting pressure on Pakistan’s political class to show that China hasn’t taken them for a ride. As Opalo rightly emphasizes, given that lacking energy and infrastructure remain one of the key binding constraints to productivity growth in several African countries, opportunities such as OBOR cannot simply be ignored, but should also be engaged critically.

George Kibala Bauer

George Kibala Bauer is completing a MA in international economic policy at Sciences Po in Paris, concentrating in African studies and emerging economies.

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