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On 14 and 15 May 2017, the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) Forum for International Cooperation took place in Beijing. It hosted delegations from 63 countries and several international organisations. Heads of states and governments led in person 29 delegations from Asia, Africa, South America and Europe (“Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation”, Xinhua.net). The forum was intended as an occasion to bolster the Chinese initiative, through panels, workshops, high level roundtables, and meetings about continental infrastructures, energy and resources, financial cooperation mechanisms and sustainable development.
It must be noted that the UN General Secretary, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the UNESCO, Interpol, the World Health Organisation, and the Wold Bank were all represented by their general directors and secretaries, while heads of states of international stature such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, or of large regional importance such as Turkish President Recep Tayep Erdogan were also present (“One Belt, One Road Forum for International Cooperation” Wikipedia). In other words, the “OBOR Summit” was an impressive display of the worldwide Chinese influence.
The “One Belt, One Road” initiative is also known as the “New Silk Road” (NSR). This grand strategy, launched in 2013, aims at creating a land and maritime international transport, trade and finance Chinese infrastructure, which spans Asia, Russia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Its aim is to find international reserves of the resources and products necessary to the development and enrichment of China (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road – From oil wells to the moon … and beyond”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, July 6 2015). This endeavour is deployed on such a scale that it becomes a new political, economic and strategic force in the globalized world, for the Chinese national interest.
In this article, we shall analyse how the OBOR Forum reveals the way China is shaping globalization, in a very singular way, based on a “low key” approach. This line of action creates influence through the construction of an international consensus about China’s needs, rather than seeing needs prompting the use of raw force.
The Summit: What is at stake?
The vast majority of the attendants were there to sign deals with China, in a wide array of fields, from transport, as for Poland and Russia, to higher education as for Serbia, Hungary and Mongolia, or oil, to name only a few. The forum was also used by International Organisations to promote their agendas. For example, the UN Secretary-General wished to see OBOR supporting the implementation of strategies to reach the sustainable goals that have become the UN roadmap, while other organisations and countries were signing energy and transport deals (“Antonio Gutteres (UN Secretary-General) remarks at the opening of the Belt and Road Forum (Beijing, China, 14 May 2017)” UN Web TV).
As a result, the Chinese government signed an impressive list of deals and memoranda of agreements about “(Synergizing) Connectivity of Development Policies and Strategies, deepening Project Cooperation for Infrastructure Connectivity, (expanding) Industrial Investment, Enhancing Trade Connectivity, (enhancing) Financial Cooperation, (Promoting) Financial Connectivity, investing more in People’s Livelihood, (Deepening) People-to-People Exchange” (“List of Deliverables of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation”, China Daily, 2017-05-16).
A particularly striking feature of the OBOR Forum is that it revives and modifies the meaning of the “Middle Kingdom”. The Chinese name for China, Zhong Guo (中国) – translated as “Middle” for Zhong and “Kingdom”, “Country” for Guo – has evolved throughout the millennia of Chinese history. Originally, it meant the place where the Emperor lived among its vassals, then it signified the central state of Xin, among other Chinese states. After the unification of the Empire, the “Middle Kingdom” became the Kingdom at the centre of other kingdoms. The centrality thus entailed also means that China is at a place that must be occupied to see guaranteed a kind of political and harmonious, equilibrium, meaning dynamic stability (Quynh Delaunay, Naissance de la Chine moderne, L’Empire du Milieu dans la globalisation, 2014).
Through this historical perspective on the political and geopolitical meaning of what it means for China to be the “”Middle” Kingdom”, it is interesting to note that the OBOR initiative locates China “in the middle” of a system of networks interwoven with the different national interests of the countries part of the Belt and Road, and with the international interests of the international organisation that have attended the summit. What is thus the strategic philosophy underlaying OBOR.
What is the strategic philosophy of OBOR?
The OBOR Forum gathered more than a third of all countries on Earth, thus demonstrating how China installs itself as a centre of attraction at the world level. In other words, the OBOR Forum reveals the success of the Chinese strategy, at a geoeconomic and political level. It has, furthermore, a deeply Chinese meaning, as also underlined above. It reveals the mammoth political clout accumulated by China, which becomes a de facto “attractor” for the countries and international organisations that have signed deals with Beijing during the Forum (Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World, 2012).
The NSR initiative is a strategy aimed at ensuring the constant flow of energy resources, commodities and products, which are necessary to the current industrial and capitalist development of the 1,4 billion strong “Middle Kingdom” (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road – From oil wells to the moon … and beyond”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, July 6 2015). Since 2013, China has been deploying the NSR initiative, which attracts the interest and commitment of numerous Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries. This international rush to Beijing for access to the Chinese market is further reinforcing the attraction of the New Silk Road, the latter also increasing in turn the appeal of the Chinese market. As a result, the New Silk Road becomes a self-reinforcing process at global scale.
As we detailed previously, the New Silk Road is a new expression of the Chinese philosophical and strategic thought (Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road: the Pakistani strategy”, The Red Team Analysis, May 18, 2015). It is grounded in an understanding of the spatial dimension of China, in the geographical sense, as well as in a comprehension of the different countries that are involved in the deployment of the NSR. Space is conceived as a support to spread Chinese influence and power to the “outside”, but also to allow the Middle Kingdom to “aspirate” what it needs from the “outside” to the “inside” (Quynh Delaunay, Naissance de la Chine moderne, L’Empire du Milieu dans la globalisation, 2014). This is why we qualify some spaces as being “useful” to the deployment of the OBOR, and why each “useful space” is related, and “useful”, to other “useful spaces”.
Through this perspective, we understand that the Beijing summit has been a gathering of the delegates from the different “useful spaces” and thus a way to deepen the interconnections between them and the globalised “Middle Kingdom” that China is currently becoming.
Shaping globalisation through the Chinese power of need
There is another layer of geopolitical meaning that is attached to the New Silk Road Forum.
During his introductory speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that, to be successful, the NSR initiative must be based on political cooperation, transport infrastructures’ connectivity, innovation and trade. As far as trade is concerned, President Xi further added that the NSR demands to “open [a] platform of cooperation and uphold and grow an open world economy” and to “uphold the multilateral trading regime, advance the building of free trade areas and promote liberalisation and facilitation of trade and investment » (President Xi Jinping “The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation”, China.org.cn, May 14, 2017).
It is interesting to note that this declaration is a Chinese appropriation of the way the globalisation process has been defined by the U.S. government during the 1990s, while Washington was promoting a worldwide free trade and globalisation, in order to develop a U.S. strategy based on the “shaping of the world”, meaning a shaping of international norms as well as trade and financial flows organised for the economic success of the United States (William J. Clinton, President of the United States of America, “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, January 19, 1999, The American Presidency Project). As the U.S., China promotes free trade outside its frontiers, while remaining cautious and keeping on being carefully protectionist as far as its own economy is concerned (Douglas Bulloch, “Protectionism May Be Rising Around The World, But In China It Never Went Away“, Forbes, October 12, 2016).
Thus, the OBOR Forum reveals how China’s grand strategy establishes the globalisation process itself as a “useful space”, because the international liberalisation of space is an important asset for the Chinese economy. However, if liberalisation is “useful” to open economic spaces to the Chinese exports, it is also useful to multiply imports deals and thus “channel” to China those resources and products that are useful to the Middle Kingdom. In other words, China installs itself “in the middle” of globalisation. If the U.S. started the globalisation process of “shaping the world”, it appears that China is currently shaping globalisation.
This will most certainly have important consequences in terms of the international distribution of power.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Geopolitics Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: Roundtable meeting of leaders at Belt and Road international forum, May 15, 2017 Beijing by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office, Kremlin. CC.0.4.