THERE isn’t anything like it in decades. One country holds an international summit, and 29 states send their heads of state or government, with high officials representing 44 other governments.
China’s Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, held in Beijing this past Sunday and Monday, was no United Nations anniversary gathering, but it certainly looked like it.
That President Xi Jinping gathered so many of his counterparts from across the planet affirmed China’s preeminence as a global power, for those still unsure about that geopolitical fact. Indeed, one can’t imagine any other country pulling so many head honchos out of a hat at this time.
What got all those leaders converging on Beijing like the many arcs of an airline’s route map is money, of course: the hundreds of billions of dollars that China aims to spend on land and sea routes creating or enhancing links with Eurasia and Africa.
In a world of iffy growth, creeping protectionism, Middle East war and East Asian confrontation over North Korea’s weapons development, China’s Belt and Road Initiative offers growth-boosting investment, trade-enhancing connectivity, and international congruence toward shared prosperity, exchanges and collaboration.
The list of deliverables agreed at the forum aim to build connectivity, invest in infrastructure and industrial development, boost economic and social exchanges, and deepen linkages in development policies and strategies.
No wonder even an American publication like the Los Angeles Times, with its wariness toward China and its geopolitical resurgence, headlined: “China’s Belt and Road Forum lays groundwork for a new global order.”
Marshall Plan then, BRI now
If anything, Americans would know a thing or two about using development spending to erect a new international dispensation. Back in 1948, the United States launched the Marshall Plan channeling billions of dollars in war reconstruction and recovery aid to devastated European nations and selected countries elsewhere.
That largesse, coupled with the financial leadership of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both under strong American influence, became the foundation for the postwar geopolitical order dominated by the US, though also challenged globally by Moscow’s Soviet communist regime.
That Cold War rivalry ended with the Soviet empire’s collapse in 1991, leaving America as the sole superpower. That led thinker Francis Fukuyama to famously declare “the end of history” with democratic capitalism’s seeming triumph.
But with Western financial woes since 2007 and China’s rapid elevation to the second-largest economy in the world and the top trading partner of most nations, American hegemony looked shaky.
Such doubts grew even more under President Donald Trump’s retreat from global leadership, especially in trade, nixing the Trans Pacific Partnership, and in environmental issues, as Washington also pulled out of the Paris climate change pact.
This global leadership vacuum left by Washington’s retreat has opened the door for China, and the Belt and Road Initiative is filling the gap, again with a new global economic regime and the mega-bucks to bankroll it.
A different kind of hegemon
While American and Chinese global clout seem to be starting with the same flood of development financing, there are differences in style and substance. The US-led world order, responding to World War 2 as well as the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, included strong military alliances, with those in the Soviet camp excluded from economic aid.
By contrast, China’s BRI is not based on any military alliances, and is avowedly open to all nations. This catholicity shows in the broad array of nations not just in the initiative, but also in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the development institution set up by Beijing to rival the Asian Development Bank, ruled by Tokyo and Washington.
Moreover, the BRI, at least in its early days, promotes consensus building and consultation, rather than the rule of its leading donor. In fact, at the forum, Chinese leader Xi sought ideas and initiatives not just from states, but even from think-tanks, even saying that Belt and Road plans are still being refined, and different proposals and recommendations are welcome.
So, while China may take a hard line in setting rules and making plans at home, in its infrastructure networking to create new Silk Roads on land and water, it seems willing to make adjustments for outside states and other entities.
All that points to perhaps a different kind of hegemon, if one may use that label, emerging out of the new Silk Roads: more willing to listen to and even solicit other ideas, keen to win outside support, and open to all comers, with no blocs blocked.
So, it would likely be with Beijing’s other economic initiatives like the AIIB, which will now accept even Chile from across the Pacific, and the Regional Cooperation Economic Program, which invites the United States, even if the Americans kept the Chinese out of the TPP.
What’s in it for the chief?
But make no mistake about it: Both the Marshall Plan and the Belt and Road Initiative have major superpower interests driving the development programs. The US aid program sought to build up Western Europe as a bulwark against Soviet aggression, while also expanding the market for American goods.
For China, the BRI brings the Eurasian land mass and Africa as well into the trade- and investment-driven sphere of expanding affluence. The networks of tarmac, rail, air routes, and sea lanes would escalate economic ties between China and the Belt-and-Road nations.
The economic payoff for China is also incalculable. The BRI will open markets across the two largest continents to its manufacturers and contractors, which both need new demand amid the slowing domestic economy.
Infrastructure investments in fast-growing economies abroad would also yield far greater returns than if poured in at home, where facilities reached saturation in many sectors due to overbuilding to counter the 2008-09 global recession.
Lastly and perhaps most crucially, the new Silk Roads offer alternative routes for trade and vital commodities to flow, in case traditional routes are blocked.
Hegemon or not, China, like America, will advance its interests as it serves others.