For the past decade or so it has become something of a cliché to describe China as an ‘emergent’ or ‘rising' superpower. At this point, China is far beyond that. Its international infrastructure projects, economic clout and shrewd international relations have secured their position; China is now a world superpower to rival the United States of America, and they are constructing a parallel international political order to rival that of the West.
The story of China’s rise from collapsing Empire to super-state and engine of the world economy is a well-told one; communist victory in a civil war against rival nationalists and foreign invaders, a few decades of upheaval and chaos on a near-incomprehensible scale (through Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution), then the famed market reforms of Deng Xiaoping, arguably the most successful economic reforms in history by the raw number of people lifted out of poverty. Throughout the 2000s up until fairly recently, it became routine for countries to begin trading with China, and many leaders, Bill Clinton most famously, declared that trade with China is the most reliable way of improving their unpleasant practices (denial of basic freedoms, political repression etc). This version of Modernisation Theory, put forward by sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset (in The Political Man) and cold warrior Walt W. Rostow (in his Stages of Economic Growth), that economic liberalisation naturally entails political liberalisation and democratisation, has been proven conclusively wrong. Despite economic liberalisation, China remains self-evidently a stiflingly oppressive regime, by far the most successful and complex system of authoritarianism ever known. The starry-eyed liberal hubris of the End of History has been dispelled, leaving in its place unfiltered realpolitik, a game that China plays well. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Officially proposed by Xi Jinping in a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013, the BRI is the consequence of years of Chinese economic growth and consolidation of political power in a world increasingly globalised by capitalism. No country can be totally isolated from the outside, though China would fare a better chance than most due to its size and wealth of resources. Yet, for reasons of political legitimacy (i.e., the state’s supposed continued belief in communism and their obvious nationalism), China was never likely to become another brick in the wall of the international liberal political and economic order. The BRI is China’s answer to this.
Consisting of two parts; the overland ‘Silk Road Economic Belt' and the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’, the BRI seeks to connect most of Eurasia to China in the vein of the classical Silk Road. Financed by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China’s rival World Bank, it is a mammoth task – involving the construction of highways, ports, power stations, railways and just about any other bit of crucial economic infrastructure imaginable. 139 countries have signed agreements related to the BRI, some more comprehensive and integrating their country into the system more than others. This is the absolute majority of the 195 states represented at the United Nations. Additionally, China recently welcomed the Democratic Republic of Congo (one of the poorest countries in the world) as its 45th partner state in Africa, a continent of 54 recognised sovereign states. Countries that have made agreements related to the BRI cover nearly every continent and stretch into Europe, including Portugal, Austria, Italy, and others. (There is much debate in these countries regarding it, and some, like Portugal, are considering reducing their involvement). Not all countries who are somehow involved will instantly become outposts of Chinese power abroad, particularly not states which already enjoy normal relations with the EU, USA, NATO and the like. What the agreement of Western European states involvement in the BRI shows, is that many governments recognise that world trade routes now increasingly converge on China as much as the USA. Given that China already manufactures many goods essential to Western economies, they cannot afford to miss out on the economic action.
Where the politics of the BRI are clearer, is China’s neighbourhood in Asia, and in Africa; both areas where many countries are consistently impoverished and underdeveloped - often assisted by kleptocratic, corrupt and authoritarian regimes. China’s immediate neighbourhood is already involved; the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a cornerstone of the BRI and costs about $87 billion as of June 2020. The project seeks to bring all the aforementioned infrastructure to Pakistan, culminating in the jewel in the crown; Gwadar port. The port on the coast of the Arabian Sea will connect the overland and maritime components of the BRI and connect to the under-construction Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (financed by the state oil corporations of those countries plus the Russian state oil corporation Gazprom). The port of Gwadar is under a 43 year lease to the China Overseas Port Holding Company, which will run the port in Pakistan, exempt from Pakistani taxes, and along the lines of the Special Economic Zones in China. By owning the land, financing the projects, and deciding economic policy in the area, the area around Gwadar is an outpost of the People’s Republic in all but name for the foreseeable future. There are other similar cases; the partially state-owned China Merchant Port Holdings company owning Hambanthota International Port in Sri Lanka, and 15,000 acres of surrounding land, on a 99-year lease, the Chinese military and navy base at Doraleh Multipurpose Port in Djibouti, and the Chinese deep-seaport in Kribi, Cameroon. China also lends large amounts of money, often to developing countries, at an above-market rate backed by collateral from the debtor (such as export revenue). Furthermore, numerous countries owe at least 20% of their nominal GDP to China, multiple in Africa, and the closest being Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. These are all examples of Chinese hard power building throughout Asia and Africa through infrastructure, investment, military outposts, and debt. And when developing countries are faced with such clear economic and geopolitical incentives, most other concerns go out the window.
The sheer power held by Chinese investment, or even the promise thereof, is evident in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, has recently refused to condemn or even mention the genocide of Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Taliban spokesmen in Afghanistan have rescinded their previous supportfor Jihadist Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang (such as the East Turkestan Islamic Party). Instead, they have welcomed China and their investments as ‘friendly’, attempting to abet their national security concerns by promising no support for Uyghur militants along the small Afghan-Chinese border in the Wakhan Corridor. That the Prime Minister of an Islamic Republic, and the heavyweights of international Islamic extremism (who will no doubt soon be in control of all of Afghanistan), are willing to overlook the persecution of up to 2 million Muslims directly on their doorstep in the pursuit of Chinese investment, tells us all we need to know about the sphere of influence China has built; ideology has nothing to do with it. The governments of other post-Soviet Central Asian states, which are mainly Muslim majority, have also had very little to say about China’s persecution of Muslims. As noted by, an ITUC report, these countries are rich in precisely the kind of resources that China voraciously consumes: natural gas, crude oil, metals and other raw materials. Such a guaranteed market for their export sector is hard to refuse. These countries are mainly poor and not particularly democratic, therefore investment from China is helpful for their governments and enables them to claim they are securing the interests of their countries and their economies whilst legitimising the continuation of their regimes. Russia has interests in Central Asia too and is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), but compared to the economic might of China, Russia is almost irrelevant, and ever more distant cultural and historical ties with Russia in Central Asia are increasingly proving insignificant compared to the appeal of cold, hard Yuan.
It is hard not to notice that many of the countries signing up for deep involvement with the BRI share similar features to varying extents; widespread poverty, authoritarianism, corruption, political systems, all of which do not fit Western standards of proper democracy. This is no coincidence, undemocratic, repressive and otherwise authoritarian governments need money, investment and infrastructure like anywhere else, and such regimes have a tendency not to last very long unless they have these things. But loans and investments from Western institutions, governments or corporations usually incorporate ethical or human rights criteria, and the institutions making these loans (particularly larger ones like the World Bank or IMF) will often demand evidence of political change or human rights improvements in exchange for loans. Why would any authoritarian government go chasing loans and investment from the West, who will expect evidence of reform and lecture recipients on human rights, when their closest neighbour will loan them as much as they want, even build vital infrastructure for them, and won’t ask any questions about the treatment of minorities or dissidents? This will spur the absorption of new countries into China’s extended sphere of influence. Many authoritarian and undemocratic countries require serious investment, and with Western governments under constant political pressure to minimise their dealings with countries who don’t respect human rights, the magnetic pull of Chinese investment without political interference can only get stronger.
It’s abundantly clear that the Chinese government, through investments, infrastructure projects, military bases, loans and so on, has created a large sphere of influence, with numerous countries now essentially dependent on them. The future economic fortunes of a large part of the world are now inextricably tied to the political will of the Chinese government and the success of the BRI and related projects. This power block centred on China, mainly in the East and South of the globe, with a backbone of, to varying extents, repressive, authoritarian, and corrupt governments, is the nightmare of the cold warriors of the 20th century transposed onto the context the 21st. The Soviet Union, even with their courting of and meddling in developing countries, could scarcely dream of having the power over other countries that China now has. Where the Soviet Union would meddle in elections and dictate economic policy, China simply owns the infrastructure, bankrolls crucial economic projects, and even takes land and administrates it with permission from other governments. The USSR made a point of supporting Marxist-Leninist regimes, or trying to create them where possible, and had to at least construe an image of ideological similarity with governments they intended to absorb into their power block. China is unburdened by such concerns. The ideology of the states they support, if any, is irrelevant to them. They maintain no pretence of exporting their ‘socialist’ system abroad, and unlike the West, they don’t even need to pretend to care about the state of human rights in states in their orbit.
So, what is the West doing about this? As some commentators have astutely noted; the pandemic has ushered in the end of neoliberalism and the return of statist economics, economically at least, the West has become more like China. The return to economic life in the West provides a myriad of political opportunities for the left and right yet, regarding China, there seems an emerging political consensus that Western states need to depend less on Chinese imports and counter the development of Chinese hard power closer to home. President Biden has maintained the Trump-era tariffs on Chinese imports, whilst the British government has refused Chinese corporation Huawei any involvement in the development of British 5G infrastructure on the grounds of national security. At this year’s G7 summit, the participating governments devised the Build Back Better World (B3W) programme – an American-led global infrastructure investment plan intended to rival the BRI. But the participating Western powers have offered no plan regarding financing or timescale for this project, so its ability to rival the appeal of the similar Chinese project, particularly to the large part of the world which is impoverished and run by corrupt or authoritarian governments, remains questionable. The new era of great power competition has come, and it looks like China are already two steps ahead.