Is China getting real with its grandiose visions for the belt and road?

Posted: February 11, 2020 in South China Morning Post
Tags: , , , ,

Up next another China piece, this time for the South China Morning Post looking at the Belt and Road in the wake of Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar.

Is China getting real with its grandiose visions for the belt and road?

  • Beijing is toning down its rhetoric for the grand plan and rethinking its massive international infrastructure programme, Raffaello Pantucci writes
  • Signs of a more modest approach from Xi Jinping’s trip to Myanmar when there was little official mention of an economic corridor involving the two countries
Topic |   Belt and Road Initiative

Absent from almost all of the official coverage around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Myanmar was any mention of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC).

A belt and road route before the Belt and Road Initiative existed, the corridor was a concept first mooted in the late 1990s but has largely gone nowhere. The bigger question this poses is whether this is a harbinger of China shedding its grander overambitious belt and road visions over the next decade for a more focused and logical set of bilateral engagements.

Certainly there has been a toning down of rhetoric around the belt and road, an infrastructure vision to link economies into a China-centred trading network. While it remains a hot topic in Beijing and a sure-fire way for leaders of other countries to be seen to be aligning themselves with China, its scattered record of success has meant there has been rethinking about how this grand concept will continue to fit into Beijing’s foreign policy repertoire. It continues to be a convenient tag for Chinese diplomats to use given its broad and positive conceptual basis but, it is not clear that China wants to continue to talk in the expansive corridor terms that it used to.

The result has been that while the initiative continues to feature in the public discourse, there has been a refocusing of attention around it. Rather than talk in terms that are almost impossible to deliver to or fail to deliver with the rapidity that might be hoped, the focus of the next stage of the narrative around belt and road will be to focus on the bilateral. Rather than China painting itself as the global regional connector, Beijing will scale back its ambition to focus on delivering direct connectivity to China in the first instance, with everything else coming in the future.

The logic of this from Beijing’s perspective makes sense: why go to the expense and effort of pushing your resources in directions whose direct benefit to China is limited or on a very long time horizon? Better instead to focus on things that are tangible and immediate and provide China with clear connectivity that it can show results at home for.

It will also help address some of the belt and road pushback that Beijing has faced globally, where the initiative is referred to as “debt trap” diplomacy, and an attempt by China to reshape global economic geography around its interests while creating a list of client states.

Not only has the volume of recipient countries complaining been growing, but foreign companies are calling out the win-win rhetoric as they grow frustrated at their inability to benefit from this push of external Chinese capital. Most recently, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China published a report in which its members complained about a lack of transparency in belt and road projects and irritation that the benefits they had seen from the initiative were “quite insignificant”.

On a visit to Pakistan last year, I met a wave of Pakistani businessmen frustrated at their inability to tap the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor money they heard reported flooding into their country. Beijing is not unaware of these concerns. The Belt and Road Summit in Beijing last year was largely a story of China trying to address global concerns around the initiative, focusing on making it more inclusive, ensuring more local benefit and making a greater effort on environmental concerns.

From this perspective, the dropping of BCIM-EC from Xi’s visit to Myanmar might be a first sign of how Beijing wants to drive the initiative forward. The BCIM-EC was always an awkward corridor to fit into the belt and road given Indian hesitation around it more generally. We saw little public reference to it during the meeting between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, and then again during Xi’s visit to Myanmar.

Instead, we see China focusing on the bilateral, delivering what has already been discussed, and avoiding too much grandiloquence which will ultimately be hard to live up to. Beijing’s track record in Myanmar is a patchy one, and recent reporting has shown how China’s efforts to support peace processes in the country have also failed to deliver.

Ultimately, Beijing will be an important partner for Myanmar. Geographic proximity assures this. The questions are how high a bar does China want to set for this relationship and how much does Beijing want to become the responsible stakeholder it was setting itself up to be?

This might be the key lesson to draw from this visit for the broader belt and road. From a half decade of ever growing grandeur, the next half decade of the initiative will be a more realistic tone and narrative focusing on ensuring China gets what it needs from these bilateral relationships rather than the overblown – and expensive – rhetoric that dominated the first half decade.

And in many ways this is a reflection of the reality of the first intended aim of the initiative, which evolved from Xi’s call for a focus on periphery diplomacy, then developed into a call for greater infrastructure and economic connectivity, and then grew into the globe spanning beast that stretched from Asia to Latin America via Africa and Europe and back. In many ways it could be that this is going to be a period of the belt and road returning to its roots. A moving of the goalposts that will allow for a shift in belt and road rhetoric without having to completely walk away from it and the loss of face that would follow.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

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