By Uilson Jones
The staggering growth that China achieved in the years leading to the 21st century was quite an unexpected phenomenon. Many in political circles were not expecting such a dramatic rise in prominence of the Chinese state as it was relatively unimportant during the Cold War in comparison to the United States and the Soviet Union. A larger discussion of China’s trajectory takes place below, however it is important to understand that the Belt and Road Initiative is both an outcome and a part of China’s current success. The BRI is an infrastructure development project that seeks to increase economic interconnectedness regionally, but also beyond. It began with the tenure of Xi Jingping in the latter half of 2013. There has since been lots of talk about this initiative, however it is difficult to discern between truth and dogmatic abstractions of truth produced by various ‘interest’ groups around the world. Thus, coming across contradictory claims about the BRI is relatively common, further aggravating the noble quest for truth. Mainstream theories on the BRI’s rationale fall short in providing convincing motivation behind the initiative. Therefore, I seek to present an alternative theory that holistically represents the motivation behind the BRI.
What is it?
The BRI is an infrastructure development project funded by largely state-owned banks and other institutions in China. Nevertheless, one should note that the Chinese government put significant efforts in encouraging the corporate sector to fund the project as well. Infrastructure projects are characterised by their “focus on the development and maintenance of services, facilities, and systems”. The BRI has the very ambitious goal of constructing a new land and maritime Silk Road connecting large parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. This project was, at least in part, motivated by the quest to rejuvenate the economies of certain undeveloped Chinese provinces by connecting such remote areas to other parts of Asia and beyond.
Some claim that the overarching aims of this initiative are borne out of economic need and other economic factors. In this view, the BRI is purely an economic endeavour that has the ability to benefit all parties involved. Others, more pessimistically, claim that rather than being motivated purely by economic factors, the BRI has a much broader motivation stemming from geopolitical factors. In other words, one of the large discussions over the BRI reflects the opposing conceptions of the geopolitical and geoeconomic views.
As a starting point, this conception begins with the acknowledgement of the US-China rivalry. This rivalry has culminated in events such as the US-China trade war and the more recent political dispute over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. As a result of the Cold War-era tensions this view tends to be very skeptical about the actions and maneuvers employed by each opposing state. This greatly impacts the way this view perceives an infrastructure development project such as the BRI. As opposed to the BRI being a purely economic endeavour, it is one that is politically motivated through and through in order to garner more influence regionally to combat US economic strength. Thus, this illuminates the pertinence of power politics in the foreign policies of the US and China.
In theoretical opposition to the previous view, the BRI can also be seen through the lens of purely economic factors which could arise from the current material conditions brought about by the economic downturn in 2008 and its prolonged and unenthusiastic recovery. That is to say, the constrained economic recovery from 2008 provided the rationale for an expansion in economic cooperation that was brought to different parts of the world through the BRI. Such a statement implies that political factors are not nearly as prominent as their economic counterparts. However, this is not entirely true as the rise in economic strength resulting from the BRI allows China to emerge in a politically stronger position than it was before in relation to its main rival – the US.
The simple narration of these views, however, is far from the aim of this article which is the reason for the very brief discussion above. The following section will explore an alternative view of the BRI that poses a more holistic conception.
An Alternate Explanation
This approach was well presented in a recent framing paper published by the Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) in November 2019. This paper challenges the geopolitical view by presenting an economic outlook on the project. Moreover, it also acknowledges that the BRI has had significant geopolitical consequences. Thus, this perspective can be seen as a bridge between the views that were discussed above. Focusing primarily on economic explanations, the paper emphasizes the “capitalist crises with Chinese characteristics” as a key driver to the BRI. In order to sufficiently grasp the argument this paper posits, it is necessary to dive into China’s political and economic trajectory in the last few decades.
With the death of Mao Zedong and the rise of Deng Xiaoping as the key political figure, China underwent a significant, yet painful transformation from a quasi-socialist mode of production to capitalist restoration spearheaded by the reformist policies of Deng Xiaoping. The restoration of the capitalist mode of production indicated a crucial transition in the functioning of Chinese social, cultural and economic society. This transition entailed the end of the collectivization policies pursued by Mao and the ushering in of a new era of capitalist development characterized by the organization of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the introduction of special economic zones (SEZs) in which foreign direct investment was encouraged resulting in a boom for China’s manufacturing sector.
Such a radical restructuring of the economy necessitated economic crises accompanied with the capitalist system. According to Harvey, a prominent Marxist scholar and geographer, crises under capitalism stem from the growing surpluses of capital and labour. The central reason for these surpluses is that capital, the driver of today’s economy, can no longer find profitability within the confines of a given unit – in this case, a country. This would inevitably lead to the contraction of the economy aided by the falling rate of profit leading to “mass unemployment of labour and an overaccumulation of capital”. These types of crises often lead to economic downturns which provide an avenue for the public to convey discontent. In order to prevent this discontent from flourishing, governments in charge of capitalist states are required to amend the contracting economy.
Harvey proposes a concept which he calls the “spatial fix”. He defines it as “the absorption of these surpluses through geographical expansion and spatial reorganization”. In other words, spatial fixes refer to actions by governments pursuing economic policies that temporarily negate the impacts of such overaccumulation of capital. Funnily enough, the World Bank unknowingly backs Harvey’s hypothesis by claiming that “no country has grown to riches without changing the geographic distribution of its people and production”. A spatial fix reflected in economic policy can mean a wide range of policy proposals extending from the liquidation of trade barriers which provide an avenue for the penetration of new markets to pursuing public works projects. Such spatial fixes, Harvey emphasizes, are characterised by temporary solutions to the overarching contradictions of capital and labour. The outstanding difference in cement consumption between the United States and China highlights the historical relevance of such spatial fixes and their repercussions on today’s economy. While the United States consumed 4,500 million tons of cement between the years 1900-1999, China managed to consume 6,500 million tons of cement in the short time span of only two years! It is important to note, however, that these spatial fixes “never fully resolve the crises, they merely shift them around spatially and temporally, ultimately leading to new and larger crises”. Therefore, this would explain the radical increase in the consumption of cement in the example above.
From this perspective, the BRI is simply the “latest moment in the process of geographical expansion and spatial reorganization following China’s transition to a capitalist mode of production from the late 1970s onwards”, nothing more nothing less.
Having covered the economic rationale for the onset of the BRI, it is imperative to observe the geopolitical consequences of such a transnational project. In fact, it can be claimed that the BRI has incited a great deal of political debate for all parties involved and that this debate is highly defined by partisan politics in that there has been a clear division between those who accept the project (countries like Russia) and those who reject it (countries like India, US). Further, a hidden military element is considered. It is argued that despite the BRI being a purely economic endeavour, the resulting increased security interconnectedness may lead to a stronger standing of the Chinese military through closer ties with other countries.
In addition, it would be negligent to disregard the nature of negotiation in the BRI. Since the negotiations are completed bilaterally, the size of China’s economy and thus its abundant reserve of capital allows it to have the ‘higher ground’ in negotiations. This asymmetry and power imbalance between China and its negotiating partners allows it to pressure its partners into accepting economic dependency. As a final political outcome, the BRI has provided countries with an outside option for those that do not want to deal with the US. This is most salient in Pakistan where large Chinese investments were able to give the country an alternative to US funding. A similar situation has arised in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe where the BRI acts as an outside option to EU investments.
The Belt and Road Initiative has and will remain politically salient in discourse worldwide. In an attempt to disentangle different views and perspectives of the BRI, it is required to state that the quest for truth that was referenced in the beginning is still as uncertain as ever. After all, the different perspectives and their theoretical-political origins are the core problems with seeking truth in the world of social and political science.
Edited by Joanna Sowińska, Illustration by Oscar Laviolette