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‘Belt and Road’ builds bridges in global age

By Zhang Junrong | 2015-12-24 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Zhang Yunling (1945- ) is a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and a CASS Member. He is a member of the Presidium of CASS Academic Divisions and director of the Academic Division of International Studies. He previously served as the director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at CASS. His research interests include global economy and international relations.


In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan and proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt. In October of the same year, during his visit to ASEAN countries, Xi announced China’s plans to construct the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. These two initiatives, collectively known as the “Belt and Road,” have become the bulwark of China’s foreign strategy and development framework. A CSST reporter recently sat down with Zhang Yunling, an expert in international relations, to discuss the “Belt and Road” and how it fits into the bigger picture of global relations.


CSST: What is the general framework of the “Belt and Road” as a grand strategy?


Zhang: China has more than 20 neighboring countries that connect to it by either land or sea and have built special geographical ties. China primarily regards enhancing neighborly and friendly relations with neighboring countries as the focus of its foreign relations and diplomatic priorities. The “Belt and Road” is a significant strategic plan for China’s relations with neighboring countries, promoting the construction of a community of interests and destiny between China and its neighboring countries on the basis of joint development.

China is the world’s second-largest economy, and its development success relies on internal reforms and external openness. Currently, China has closely connected with the world and regional markets, forming surrounding economic rings with dominant characteristics. The “Belt and Road” will contribute to strengthening China’s relations with surrounding economic rings, gradually building economic zones with open development on the basis of interconnecting construction and forming manufacturing, service and financial industries as well as an economic belt interconnected with diverse cultures. It will enormously change the economic structure, which was previously based on trade and resources.

The strategic initiative of the “Belt and Road” focuses on the surroundings. Though there are a few developed countries among them, developing countries make up most of China’s surrounding regions, including South Asia, Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Their desire for development is strong, and their development potential is enormous. Through promoting the “Belt and Road,” surrounding countries can benefit from China’s development and obtain more rapid development by hitching their wagons to China’s star. Simultaneously, China will gain more opportunities from surrounding countries’ development and make the surrounding regions become a belt of China’s further development.


CSST: China’s history is unlike the stories of the rise of other great powers. So how do you think this difference is reflected in the “Belt and Road?”


Zhang: The history of global development seems to indicate that great powers must come into conflict, and powerful countries must pursue hegemony. China’s rapid development has caught the world’s attention because people are concerned about what China will do if it becomes powerful. Some people have raised the alarm that should China adopt an expansionist strategy and compete with the United States, the world would be caught in the “Thucydides’ trap,” in which conflicts among great powers will occur, triggering great wars. However, their concerns are unfounded.

Just take the Maritime Silk Road as an example. After the rise of Western powers, they pursued the sea power theory, which is dependent on controlling the sea. So does it mean that China wants to follow their footsteps to achieve maritime hegemony? Actually, the initiative of the Maritime Silk Road gives us a clear answer: What China strives to construct is a coastal economic belt for cooperation and development on the basis of openness and freedom of navigation, marine joint security and efforts to develop marine resources.

China actively aims to establish a new pattern of relations with the United States featuring non-confrontation, dialogue and cooperation in an attempt to avoid the traditional path rising powers tend to follow. Simultaneously, China is initiating and promoting the strategy of the “Belt and Road” to break down people’s doubts about the possibility of China’s expansion strategy. China expects to prove to the world that its commitment to peaceful development is not empty talk, and it is determined to take actions to realize mutually beneficial cooperation.


CSST: In terms of promoting the construction of new mechanisms and a new international order, what kinds of contributions does China make?


Zhang: The development of developing countries has become a dominant theme in this era. It means that a number of emerging economies are rising rapidly, and more developing countries are taking off. So it is necessary to ponder how to maintain this trend of development and create a sustainable environment for developing countries. China is a major economy in the world, but it is still a developing country.

From the perspective of its own development, China will constantly prioritize development. Since China is the world’s second-largest economy, a major trading nation and holds the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, it should contribute to the world’s development and create a much better environment for the global economy. The “Belt and Road” can provide a platform to push development and cooperation further, combine Chinese economy’s development with other countries’ development, and utilize China’s devotion to encourage all parties’ enthusiasm and make a new development space and engine.

In my opinion, through the open platform of the “Belt and Road,” China and other countries can plan cooperative projects together, which conforms to and meets the demand for peace and development. For a long time, financing, especially in infrastructure construction and long-term engineering construction, for developing countries has been extremely difficult. Besides, the capacity of current international financial institutions is limited, and private financial institutions have shown insufficient willingness to invest. So infrastructure development is lagging behind, and the efforts to improve the environment have stalled. The “Belt and Road” creates cooperative financial institutions and various other financial institutions that can break down financial barriers so China can play a more important role in this platform. That’s why China advocates setting up the New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Development Bank, and the Silk Road Fund. The new era demands new mechanisms and institutional innovation. China joins the current international institutions and in return promotes adjustment and reforms to existing institutions.


Establishing new mechanisms to meet new development demands is also the requirement of times. Obviously, the “Belt and Road” is a cooperative strategy instead of a confrontational strategy. So we can only understand the significance of the “Belt and Road” with an open mind and a cooperative attitude.


CSST: You once mentioned that the “Belt and Road” is China’s initiative, but there are many obstacles to making the initiative a reality and achieving results. So what actions should be taken to realize the initiative in the future?


Zhang: As China becomes stronger, its influence increases, and it will increasingly pursue its own interests. The “Belt and Road” strategy should be earnestly implemented and conducted step by step as follows.

First, China should actively understand and respond to some countries and regions’ strategic concerns. Some countries worry that China might take advantage of the “Belt and Road” to implement an expansionist strategy, and they misunderstand China’s attempts to jointly construct an infrastructure network. They tend to politicize economic issues, make simple things complicated and only care about their own interests. They not only refuse to join the “Belt and Road” initiative but also force their partner countries to ally with them against it. So the construction of the “Belt and Road” needs more patience and should be gradually connected with local development and strategic plans in order to find out common interests.

Second, China should take active and appropriate actions to resolve disputes. For instance, the construction of the Maritime Silk Road highlights an implied new order, which refers to the new open and cooperative marine view and spirit. Moreover, China should reach a cooperative agreement with countries involved through dialogue and negotiation. China should strengthen negotiations with ASEAN and negotiate agreements on conduct within the South China Sea as early as possible on the basis of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. 2015 is the year of China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation, which contributes to facilitating the construction of Maritime Silk Road projects in a broader range.

Third, China should create a sustainable development model. Take the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt as an example. Previously, economic and trade relations between China and Central Asian countries were mainly represented in the realm of resources, which entailed the exploitation and utilization of resources in Central Asia and the construction of energy transmission pipelines to China. In order to build the Silk Road Economic Belt, we should change such simple energy relations and set up a resource-processing industry, manufacturing industry and service industry in Central Asia to improve its economic development level. Only when the economies of Central Asian countries have been comprehensively developed, can China and Central Asian countries create a broader development space.


Zhang Junrong is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.