The New Silk Road

Image: Elyeser Szturm

Unlike the pattern we know in the XNUMXth century, agreements with the Chinese are not made with guns in hand, nor do they have, under the table, letters guiding the overthrow of governments.

By Alexandre G. de B. Figueiredo*

“From sea to sea/from earth to snow/all men contemplate you/China”. Today, more than 60 years after Pablo Neruda penned these verses, the world's eyes are still on China, with increased attention. Arriving at the center of the geopolitical chessboard, the Asian power rejects the pretense of hegemony and continues to define itself as a developing country, which implies an approach to international relations that preaches multilateralism, peace and prosperity for all.

The New Silk Road or Belt and Road Initiative (Belt and Road Initiative), as it is known internationally, is the materialization of this vision. Presented by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, this is a huge partnership project offered by China with the aim of building the largest infrastructure network for transporting goods and people on the planet, in addition to improving the digital economy. It includes works such as roads and railways crossing all of Asia and reaching Western Europe, airports, ports supporting maritime networks, oil pipelines, among others. In the official definition, it involves policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, free flow of trade, financial integration and understandings between peoples. By the end of 2018, just five years after launching the initiative, China had already signed agreements with 106 countries and 29 international organizations.

It is not a multilateral agreement, although it involves relations and establishes multilateral institutions, but rather bilateral agreements that China offers its partners. Briefly, they imply Chinese financing for the construction of the necessary structure for the intended interconnection. To this end, Beijing created, in 2014, the Silk Road Fund, with resources from its state agencies and development finance banks: an initial contribution of 40 billion dollars. In 2017, when the first International Silk Road Forum was held, new billionaire contributions were made, indicating both the success of the initiative and China's willingness to take it forward.

The initiative particularly covers Asia and Europe, but does not exclude developing countries in other regions. Which is natural: China both positions itself as a leader in this group and has already been consolidating its relations with regions despised by the North, such as, for example, Africa, where its presence is increasingly relevant. And, not least, with Latin America, whose rapprochement with the Chinese causes fears and strong reactions in Washington offices.

There are those who speak of a Chinese Marshall Plan, given the immense volume of resources, invoking US funding for the reconstruction of Western Europe destroyed by the Second World War. However, and this is worth remembering, the New Silk Road does not imply a military counterpart, as was the case with the Marshall Plan, with its consequent creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

On the contrary, the Chinese initiative claims to maintain the defense of the application of the policy of the five principles of peaceful coexistence enunciated by Zhou Enlai still in the 1950s, when the People's Republic was in its early years: respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries; non-aggression; non-interference in the internal affairs of other States; equality between countries; and mutual benefit. To these principles – China's historical position in international relations – is now joined the “community of common destiny of humanity”, emphasized at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party, in October 2017.

Therefore, more than a purely economic initiative with the aim of expanding export and import networks centered in China, the New Silk Road intends to be a counter-hegemonic project, a new proposal for the international system. To understand it in all its dimensions, it is necessary to approach the historical experience of China, particularly among contemporary states, due to its millenary roots.

Starting with the reference to the silk road itself. Its “original” version dates back to the beginning of the common era, when a gigantic network of roads, cities and markets existed across the expanses of Asia from China to Europe. There are records of trade in silk, a product originally developed in China, in XNUMXnd century Rome. In addition to goods, caravans carried ideas back and forth: Buddhism, now one of the pillars of traditional Chinese culture, traveled east along the paths of the Silk Road.

On the other hand, Chinese inventions and discoveries such as paper, magnetism, agricultural instruments, stirrups, among others, reached Europe by the same route. This is the “spirit of the Silk Road” invoked by Xi Jinping in his speeches as the foundation of the new initiative: cooperation, openness, expansion of knowledge and benefits for all. “The spirit of the Silk Road has become a great asset of human civilization,” he told the 1500 participants of the 2017 Forum, an idea reiterated at the recent April 2019 meeting.

And what would that "spirit" be?

The consolidation of a unified Chinese state took place in 221 BC, putting an end to a period of centuries of internal wars, in which dozens of small states disputed hegemony in the region that today comprises China. The King of Qin, one of these powers, carried out the military campaign that defeated opponents and consolidated centralization into an Empire. Qin Shi Huangdi, as he calls himself ("first emperor"), took several steps to organize the administration and protect his domain. One of them consisted of the first construction of the Great Wall, from existing structures. China, aware of its greatness, sought order after internal wars and left the rest of the world beyond its walls.

Already under the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), which succeeded Qin, China expanded its limits beyond the Yellow River, conquering territories that freed the passage to central Asia, especially the Hexi Corridor, a strip of land between the Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi Desert. As early as the beginning of the 618nd century, both trade routes were open and many Central Asian states became tributaries of the Emperor. China would now open up and take its achievements across Eurasia. The Silk Road reached its apogee in the Tang Dynasty (907-1297) and only declined with the Mongol conquest in XNUMX. Therefore, for more than a thousand years, those routes stabilized the exchange of goods and worldviews.

Today, in seeking the ancient Route as a symbol and reference for its most ambitious proposal, China relies on historical legitimacy to present itself to the world as the power that, barring the period of colonial domination, it has always been. Evidently, there is the political will to assert that this return to a condition that was his for most of history should not cause fear. After all, as the Chinese insist, China's prosperity will be, as it were, everyone's prosperity.

Naturally, even as the construction of this New Silk Road advances rapidly, it faces setbacks that require a lot of its traditional strategic patience from China.

By signing its agreements, China relates to countries with contradictory demands and crosses areas of latent disputes. The relationship with India, for example, is extremely delicate. By listing Pakistan as a preferred ally and announcing agreements for infrastructure works in the Kashmir region, which India claims as its own, China is taking a tacit position in the face of a conflict involving nuclear powers. This was the price to be paid for gaining a foothold in Central Asia and opposing the US military enclave in Afghanistan.

The United States, for its part, seeks to maneuver against the Chinese project by exploiting these difficulties and working through the disagreement between India and China. Perhaps this is the most complex issue in the New Route scenario, but the existence of common long-term strategic objectives among the Asian powers can collaborate to overcome the difficulties.

Fears about the rise of Chinese power and the risk of chronic indebtedness of partner countries are also raised against the initiative. There are those who remember that the world already owed China $2018 trillion in 5 (6% of world GDP) and that, in addition, 7% of US GDP is Chinese property in US Treasury bonds[1]. However, the hypocrisy of those who kicked the stairs to interdict it to others is clear.

Unlike the pattern we know in the XNUMXth century, agreements with the Chinese are not made with guns in hand, nor do they have, under the table, letters guiding the overthrow of governments. This is the great asset that Beijing has to boast against the propaganda war that accuses its initiative.

“There is nothing more fluid and smoother than water, and yet nothing equals it for tackling roughness,” says the dao de jing. Gently, the water cuts through the rigid mountains. The reference to Laozi is made by Xi Jinping who, announcing the Chinese program for international relations, ended his speech at the last Congress of the Communist Party by stating that “when the great Dao reigns, the world belongs to all”. It is this age-old wisdom that sets the tone for facing the challenges surrounding the New Silk Road with which China intends to interconnect the world, from sea to sea, from land to snow.

*Alexandre G. de B. Figueiredo He holds a PhD from the Graduate Program in Latin American Integration (PROLAM-USP).


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