Silk Road Headlines_29th August, 2018

Among the news items and analyses from this week, one of the most interesting and potentially consequence-ridden is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on developing China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) between China and Greece [EU member Greece signs Belt and Road Initiative deal with China]. This development, just a few months after 27 of the 28 EU Ambassadors (including Greece’s) signed a report criticising the BRI, underscores the ever-growing appeal of China’s global outreach. According to Beijing, the success of endeavours such as the BRI lies in their adherence to values of ‘openness, transparency and inclusiveness’, and in China’s overall ‘commitment to multilateralism’, which is crucial ‘especially at a time when unilateralism and protectionism are rising’.

 

As highlighted by a timely Bloomberg feature [What Does a Chinese Superpower Look Like? Nothing Like the U.S.], on the one hand the BRI is evidence of Xi Jinping’s determination to enhance China’s global status from that of a rule-taker to a rule-maker, especially in ‘new’ policy areas such as cybersecurity, sustainability, and connectivity. On the other hand, Beijing remains uneasy about ‘branding’ itself as the world’s next superpower, as it wants to clearly detach its image from that of a ‘21st century US-style neo-imperial power’. Thus, it is not surprising that China has been very keen on stressing the ‘Chinese characteristics’ and win-win nature of all its domestic and international initiatives.

 

Nevertheless, commentators have been observing a number of developments in China’s increasingly assertive foreign and security policy which are somewhat relatable to the behaviour of a ‘traditional’ (aspiring) superpower. Specifically, they have been pointing at China’s marked increase in defence spending and military outreach, at the gaining traction of its reformist (i.e. non-liberal) development model, as well as at the growing scope and scale of Beijing’s international mediation and conflict resolution activities - remarkably so since 2013, the year of the BRI’s inception [China as a conflict mediator: Maintaining stability along the Belt and Road]. Hence, without dismissing the high degree of uncertainty surrounding Beijing’s ability to overcome severe structural and diplomatic hurdles, we could (mis)quote Trotsky and argue that, even if China is not interested in becoming a superpower, ‘superpower’ might be interested in it.

 

Francesco S. Montesano