The Belt and Road Initiative (IFR) celebrates its first decade of implementation in 2023. The elapsed time supports it as a long-term project.
Two attitudes have shaped the global response. On the one hand, developing countries have welcomed an alternative proposal that focuses on their most pressing needs, particularly in terms of infrastructure. China’s plan provides targeted support in areas underserved by traditional financing, filling a gap of unique importance. The growth potential that China offers these countries means, in many cases, solving bottlenecks that impede the development opportunities of many economies. Therefore, the overall assessment is positive, even if both parties, largely inexperienced in dealing with this new dynamic, will have to adjust management mechanisms and procedures in a timely manner.
On the other hand, in the developed countries, a certain hostility to competition has developed from an initial lack of clarity and reluctance. Actually, it’s not wise to be scared of the IFR; Instead, China’s strategy should be viewed with a broad vision, and rather than dismissing it for the supposed “hidden interests” that inspire it, it should be broken down in detail and explored the possibilities of triangular cooperation so that it can bring universal, tangible benefits.
Essentially, the IFR could be understood as a proposal to enrich the Western-promoted model of globalization, based on the promotion of trade, by introducing more factors. This formula of Sino-globalization is seen by some as a “threat” that seeks to de-Westernize the world; But we also demand that the world’s second largest economy assume global responsibility.
The Chinese reaction is moving in this direction. In fact, the IFR has an empirical and transformative dimension that will boost the economies of the countries that benefit directly from it. But the proposed spiral of stability and growth of some IFR-related projects also offers opportunities for developed countries if they do not become complacent. To do this, it is important to realize that the subsidy monopoly is over and there are more players in the market today.
China proposes that developing countries seek synergies that meet endogenous needs, balance the interests of both parties, build trust, improve strategic communication, consider the priorities set sovereignly and unconditionally, as well as the alternatives in terms of development model. The latter is a notable problem, since too often in recent times this approach has not been the approach endorsed by the Western-led multilateral institutions that have introduced neoliberal mechanisms with very negative repercussions on developing country societies.
And he suggests that developed countries encourage cooperation with third countries. Some have joined the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) or even signed the Memorandum of Understanding. However, after the first five years of expanding the initiative, Donald Trump’s de-globalization drive, backed by the Biden administration, has created serious obstacles to this cooperation, by portraying China as a power-hungry rival.
It is surprising that in the reaction of the G7 or the EU, the disqualification heard more and more every day, the “We can do better”: G7 Partnership on Global Infrastructure and Investments and the European Global Gateway Initiative Union, launched as imitation, affect in this narrative, in fact confrontational, but it remains to be seen if it can be accompanied by effective and ambitious proposals. A look at past promises does not invite optimism.
Developed countries do not welcome China’s contribution, fearing that it will lead to a diminution of their global institutional power. But development is a common concern, and China can help bridge the gap. If Western countries fear that the IFR will spur the transformation of the international system by creating a new centrality, it is worth bearing in mind that the shift in global focus towards Asia-Pacific is irreversible. Forgoing space and prominence is the only way to accommodate China and involve it in constructive participation in solving global problems.
The IFR is now a public good, demonstrating a clear will to contribute not only to China’s internal modernization but also to global modernization. China is inspired by its own history and tradition, but also by its different way of doing things through consultation and negotiation, dialogue and relational governance. That China interests the West and the world and that global governance is not possible without its projects – and its ideas and approaches.
A Galician politician from the 1930s, Castelao, used to say: “Start work until it’s done. Anyone who thinks it’s going badly should work on it, there’s room for everyone.” The same could be true for the IFR today. It’s not about disqualification, it’s about sharing and improving.
Xulio Ríos is Advisor Emeritus at the Chinese Policy Observatory.