The Belt and Road Initiative and Asia’s changing order


November 18, 2017

The Belt and Road Initiative and Asia’s changing order

by Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

In the two days of meetings from 8 November between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Trump’s first state visit, it appears that they did not talk at all about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Trump’s tour reflected the tendency of his administration to see Asia entirely through the lens of bilateral ties and crises. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump have stated that the United States seeks to sustain and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific, but the inability to match that concept with either a meaningful strategic vision or substantive policy was plainly on display.

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This absence of strategic thinking about the region is a key reason for the neglect of China’s BRI. It is a policy that is monumental in scale, highly strategic in its outlook and reflects Xi’s confident and ambitious vision of China’s global role. If the United States and its allies want to maintain the underlying economic and strategic status quo in Asia, they need to recognise that they will be doing so at the same time that China is forging ahead with its BRI plans.

The initiative was first announced in a pair of speeches given by Xi in 2013 in Kazakhstan and Bandung, setting out a sweeping but vague vision for improved connectivity between China and the former Silk Road Corridor. At the recent 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the initiative was written into the party’s constitution. It is without question the most important element in China’s international policy.

At its core, the BRI is about the practical business of connecting peoples and markets through infrastructure. But it also has at least five different strategic functions.

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Perhaps the most immediate of these is that it is a means to drive economic growth in China’s deprived southern and western provinces. The aim is both to reduce the huge economic inequalities between the Chinese hinterlands and the coast and to provide a social developmental anchor for parts of China that the CCP has long seen as restive and resistant to Beijing rule. A more prosperous Xinjiang is, from this view, less likely to be susceptible to the allure of ‘terrorism and separatism’.

But huge investment in infrastructure is not just about leveling out economic prospects within China: the initiative also aims to improve economic development prospects in China’s western periphery. The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor — a sprawling program of pipelines, dams and development projects in Pakistan — is not so much about bringing hydrocarbons from the Arabian Sea to Xinjiang. Rather, it is about improving Pakistan’s welfare. A well-off Pakistan is a better market for Chinese goods, a more reliable partner to balance Indian influence and is less likely to be a source of radical Islamist inspiration. That the economic improvement among China’s neighbours would also align those countries’ interests with Beijing’s is an added bonus.

This will also help create more developed markets to consume the higher-end manufactured goods that China’s economic reformers aim to create. Importantly, as those markets  along the Belt and Road are developed they are also intended to have Chinese industrial standards to become internationalised, further entrenching China’s economic advantage. As the United States knows, countries that build infrastructure also set the standards.

A fourth motive — and perhaps one that has been the most prominent in the minds of China hawks — is the BRI’s geopolitics. China’s dependence on its maritime approaches and their vulnerability to US power has long been a source of concern for the Party leadership. The US navy’s submarine fleet is likely to ensure that even if China were to ‘leapfrog’ aircraft carrier development, the country would remain susceptible to US naval predation. By pivoting west and being able to access markets via continental means, China can overcome the maritime choke points that create submarine vulnerability, thereby gaining much needed strategic depth.

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Finally, in developing the BRI’s US$1 trillion infrastructure program that binds states and economies into a China-centred economic and strategic system, China is aiming to weaken existing strategic and institutional structures. In short, the BRI is a crucial part of China’s incremental and non-threatening construction of a new regional order. The symbolism could not be clearer from Beijing: we are building bridges, ports and pipelines while you, the United States, are building walls.

More than 60 countries have signed memorandums of understanding with China about the BRI, yet many others (particularly those close to the United States) remain sceptical. Australia seems genuinely perplexed as to how to respond, while Japan’s recent cautious approval is the public face of a very sceptical Japanese government. This uncertainty is understandable.

From a US ally point of view, the BRI is a genuinely puzzling program. The region badly needs infrastructure investment and China has the capital, experience and capability to drive this forward. But the initiative will almost certainly increase China’s relative strength and further erode the old regional order. As a project in which the geopolitical cannot be disentangled from the economic, it also frustrates more conventional approaches to international policy.

The BRI’s close association with President Xi means that it is going to be the most important component of China’s international policy over the coming decade. Equally, as it unfolds it will significantly alter strategic and economic relationships in the region. More broadly, the BRI reflects an ambition to fill in the missing piece of the connectivity puzzle that will create a more China-centred regional order. The question is whether the United States will contest China’s efforts or be too busy with its own travails to even realise that there is a competition. If Trump’s first nine months in office are any indication, China has the field wide open.

Nick Bisley is Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter at @NickBisley.

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture


November 9, 2017

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture

by  Ja Ian Chong, National University of Singapore

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for vivian balakrishnanCall on Myanmar State Counsellor, Union Minister in the President’s Office and Union Minister for Foreign Affairs Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on 18 May 2016 during his introductory visit to Myanmar [Photo: MFA]

 

In July 2017, a rare public debate occurred within Singapore’s foreign policy establishment. In contention was whether the city-state should defer to major powers or insist on pursuing its longstanding foreign policy principles.

 

This discussion came against a backdrop of China’s new willingness to assert its foreign policy preferences, apparent fissures within ASEAN as well as US capriciousness. Such developments have the potential to shake longstanding pillars of Singapore’s external relations. The debate reflects unease about shifts in East Asian politics and uncertainty over how best to respond.

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Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong with President Xi Jinping of China–Engaging China while tilting towards the United States

Engaging China — especially in terms of economics — while encouraging comprehensive US engagement in Asia are integral to Singapore’s longstanding approach of ‘not choosing sides’ between Beijing and Washington. This policy assumes significant overlap in US and Chinese interests, shared major power desire for self-restraint and mutual accommodation and US commitment to the liberal international order it created after World War II. Recent developments seem to cast doubt on these long-held presumptions. In fact, the 2017 Qatar Crisis that sparked the debate stemmed partially from US disinterest and ambivalence.

Singapore is especially discomforted by China’s reclamation and arming of artificial islands in the South China Sea despite widespread opposition, and Beijing’s non-participation in and lambasting of the Philippines-initiated arbitration tribunal process. Beijing was also exceptionally harsh in criticising Singapore over the latter’s insistence on the rule of law in relation to maritime issues and the arbitration tribunal. The detention in Hong Kong of Singaporean armoured vehicles en route from Taiwan and the apparent exclusion of the Singapore Prime Minister from Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum further heightened Singaporean concerns.

One of Donald Trump’s first moves as US President was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Other major trade arrangements hang in the balance as the US administration threatens punitive action against trade partners. The rashness with which President Trump seems to treat North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons could also destabilise the region. Potential US global retreat is similarly disconcerting despite reports that the Trump administration dropped calls to make security commitments contingent on payment from allies and partners. Such actions detract from efforts by US officials to assure East Asia of active and consistent US engagement.

Behaviour by Beijing and Washington endangers another important pillar of Singapore’s foreign policy: its preference for international law, institutions and norms. Such mechanisms give smaller states a degree of formal equality with major powers, since all actors are technically restrained by the same rules, requirements, and procedures. Notably, participants in the July 2017 debate agreed on Singapore’s need for institutions such as the United Nations and ASEAN as well as international law to be robust. They differed on how strongly to advance such arrangements.

Beijing’s rejection, mobilisation against and dismissal of the South China Sea arbitration tribunal process along with its expansive maritime claims and broad interpretation of exclusive economic zone rights suggests a desire to adjust internationals laws in fact if not in form. China’s ability to break ASEAN consensus on positions Beijing deems inimical to its interests and Washington’s new suspicion of multilateral institutions — seen in the TPP withdrawal and its criticism of the UN — portend greater pressure on key institutions.

Some ASEAN members seem ready to accede to China on the promise of economic gain, even as Washington appears to be turning into an increasingly unreliable institutional partner. Then there is worry about major powers eroding sovereign autonomy by intervening domestically through business, academia and other sectors. Prevailing laws, institutions and norms are familiar to Singapore and it has historically excelled in working with them to its own benefit. Shifts on these fronts — which Singapore cannot influence — are cause for anxiety.

The debate abated with a reiteration of longstanding principles by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan without new policies or strategic directions. Such trepidation is unsurprising given the many complex variables currently at play. Circumstances surrounding China’s rise and the United States’ relative decline are unprecedented for Singapore, and the country is on the cusp of a generational leadership transition. ASEAN is no longer the same conservative, anti-communist Cold War club, where member interests were relatively predictable and consensus was easier to develop. Climate change, long-term economic sustainability, and terrorism too present serious challenges.

Singapore is not alone in trying to find its foreign policy footing — the July debate parallels ongoing discussions in Australia, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere about how to reposition strategic priorities. Singapore may ultimately wish to re-examine how best to pursue its enduring interests in maintaining freedom of action, economic openness and the containment of tensions given the evolving external environment.

Possible considerations range from reducing reliance on ASEAN in favour of other partnerships to investing in far-reaching ASEAN reform, perhaps at some expense to autonomy. Contemplating such change, particularly in public, may be uncomfortable for Singapore’s foreign policy traditionalists, but it is necessary for charting the city-state’s future in an increasingly uncertain world and hence deserving of sustained and open discussion.

Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor of Political Science at National University of Singapore.

Be Prepared–An Assertive China Ahead


November 2, 2017

Be Prepared–An Assertive China Ahead

by  Yu Tao

https://thediplomat.com

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The Assertive Globalist– Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assertive defence of globalisation in his address to world economic and political leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in early 2017 surprised many. Few expected the Chinese President and head of the Communist Party to attend the spiritual home of global capitalism for the first time, and fewer still to hear such a forthright speech.

The Chinese Communist Party(CCP) concluded its 19th National Congress on October 24, and announced its new leadership on Wednesday morning. Unsurprisingly, this new central leadership team is headed by Xi Jinping, who has been China’s most powerful politician since the CCP’s last National Congress in 2012. After being re-elected as the general secretary of China’s only ruling political party and the chair of its Central Military Commission, Xi will lead the 89 million members of the Chinese Communist Party – and the 1.3 billion citizens of the People’s Republic of China – for the next five years, and possibly beyond.

The Assertive Dragon under Xi Jinging embraces globalisation and win win partnerships

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The America First Eagle under Donald Trump surrenders global leadership and antagonizes the rest of the world.

Xi’s public speeches during and after the Party Congress were not merely a summary of what has been done in the last five years. Instead, through these speeches, Xi not only ambitiously set the tone for the politics of China in the next five years and even beyond, but also confidently declared that China had entered a “new era” under his leadership. One of the major policy shifts that we can expect to see in Xi’s China is that the country will become much more outward-looking in international politics, asserting more proactive roles in major global issues that go beyond the immediate relevance to China’s national and regional interests.

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“Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” Deng Xiaoping

For decades, China has been intending to become a “quiet achiever” in the arena of global politics. In the late 1980s, Deng Xiaoping instructed Chinese diplomats to keep a low profile, and this strategy is often translated into English as “hide our capabilities and bide our time.” Back then, the Chinese leadership believed that their priority was developing China’s domestic economy, and they were unwilling to get involved with international politics that had little direct relevance to China.

 

However, as China’s economy grows bigger, China’s weight on the international arena has increased extensively. China has demonstrated that it has the capacity to mobilize its military and economic resources to evacuate its nationals from Libya and Yemen, places that are not traditionally considered as within the reach of China’s sphere of influence. In the first six months of 2017, over 62 million Chinese citizens traveled to other countries as tourists – to illustrate, this figure is larger than the combined total populations of Australia and Canada. Since 2016, China has also been holding second place in the Elcano Global Presence Index, a widely-accepted measure that ranks 100 countries according to their economic performance, military capacity, and soft power.

With China’s influence in the world becoming more obvious, the expectation that China should play a more proactive role in international politics has increased from both within and outside China. The Chinese leadership has also become more confident in their commercial and military capacity over the years.

Since Xi became China’s top leader in 2012, as well as becoming more assertive in defending China’s key interests in regions surrounding the country, China has also started creating a more comfortable international environment for itself through grand global projects such as the “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious plan to link China with Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Europe, and Africa through physical infrastructure, financial arrangements, and cultural exchanges.

Judging from Xi’s speech at the Party Congress, it is obvious that the current Chinese leadership is very happy with, and confident in, their way of doing things. As stated in his speech at the opening ceremony, Xi believes that China has “blaz[ed] a new trial for other developing countries to achieve modernization. It offers a new option for other countries and nationals who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”

With such a level of confidence and optimism, under Xi’s leadership in the next five years, China will not be shy about – in Xi’s own words – offering “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” China is likely to achieve this by further pushing its flagship international development project, the Belt and Road Initiative, which many observers believe marks China’s push to take a more influential role in international affairs.

China’s transition from a “quiet achiever” to an “assertive player” in the global arena is also likely to be reflected by its changing approach in international communication and soft-power construction. In his Party Congress speech, Xi called his comrades to build “stronger confidence” in the Chinese culture. He also said clearly that China will “enhance its cultural soft power” through presenting “a true, multi-dimensional, and panoramic view of China.” That is to say, China will not be shy about telling its stories to an international audience, and it is determined to tell these stories in effective ways.

Xi made it clear that China will prompt “the building a community with a shared future to mankind,” also known as a “community of common destiny.” This new strategy for China’s foreign policies aims at pursuing “open, innovative, and inclusive development that benefits everyone.” Of course, this does not mean the Chinese Communist Party will compromise on what it considers key national interests. For example, Xi set a strong tone on the Taiwan issue, stating that the CCP has “the resolve, the confidence, and the ability to defeat separatist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form.” This part of the speech attracted much applause from the Congress delegates. Indeed, as many China watchers have pointed out, a considerable amount of people in China believe that the Communist Party will lose its legitimacy to rule China if it loses Taiwan.

The message that Xi sent through his speech indicates that the Chinese leadership is ready to look beyond the regions and issues that are immediately related to their country, to move their country “closer to the center stage” of the world, and to lead their country to “make greater contributions to mankind.” By stating that “no country can alone address the many challenges facing mankind and no country can afford to retreat into self-isolation,” Xi also sets a clear, albeit in explicit, contrast to Donald Trump’s isolationism, portraying China as a responsible power that committed itself to major global affairs including peace, development and climate change.

If the blueprints outlined by Xi in the last few days are to be faithfully implemented, the world will be expected to see a fundamental switch in China’s diplomacy and foreign policies in the next few years. Under the leadership of the new Central Committee of the CCP, with Xi at the top, China is likely to transfer itself from a quiet achiever into an outward-looking, proactive, and probably rather assertive player that is not shy about telling the world what it sees as more appropriate and justifiable international order.

China adopted such a strategy once before, under Mao Zedong’s leadership between the 1950s and 1970s, intending to make itself the leader of the “third world” outside United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies. At that time, China offered enormous international aid to its followers and launched extensive propaganda wars, but the world was predominately shaped by the bilateral relations between the two superpowers. However, the game in the global arena has changed fundamentally between then and now. As China already emerged as the world’s Number Two in many aspects, the shift in its style, attitude, and behavior in global affairs is likely to have a profound impact on the international order in the years to come.

Yu Tao is a lecturer in Chinese Studies in the University of Western Australia (UWA), where he teaches contemporary Chinese society and language, and coordinates the Chinese Studies major.