Rukiye Patan | email@example.com
She is currently a Research Fellow at CESRAN International. She is an MA student in the Department of International Relations at Karadeniz Technical University in Turkey.
Jonathan Fulton is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. His teaching and research interests focus on China’s relations with the Arab Gulf monarchies, international relations of the Persian Gulf, and international relations of East Asia. He is the author of China’s Relations with the Gulf Monarchies and co-editor of External Powers and the Gulf Monarchies.
Before asking my questions, I would like to thank you for accepting our interview invitation. It is my pleasure to conduct this interview with you for the Political Reflection Magazine. I would like to ask you a general question first.
Question: The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is generally regarded as a long-term intercontinental initiative aimed at accelerating the economic integration of countries via eradicating infrastructure along the ancient Silk Road route. One could argue that it is one of the most significant commercial initiatives of the 21st century. What is your opinion regarding the role of BRI in global trade?
Jonathan Fulton: China’s economic influence is the most well-developed aspect of its global power. It has used trade, investment and contracting as a set of tools to make it a more consequential country politically. The Lowy Institute had China as the top trading partner of 128 countries in 2018, a remarkable shift since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. Of course, this commercial prominence spills over into every other aspect of other countries’ relations with the PRC, and the BRI is undoubtedly a significant part of this strategy. When it was announced in 2013, China was sitting on approximately $3.2 trillion in foreign reserves. With tremendous development needs across Eurasia – the Asian Development Bank estimated that Asia needed $8 trillion in infrastructure investment between 2010 and 2020 – the BRI put forward a valuable solution to addressing some of these concerns while putting good use to Chinese capital and, importantly, putting a positive spin on its international profile. The implementation of these BRI projects creates opportunities for Chinese SOEs and private companies and links supply chains across countries and regions, so it has the potential to facilitate trade throughout Eurasia and the Indian Ocean region in a way that will obviously benefit China, as well as those countries and companies that take advantage of it. At the same time, this is not apolitical. There will be natural spillover effects in the political, cultural, and strategic realms as a result.
Question: BRI is a significant initiative to establish multi-dimensional partnerships and sustainable development between countries on the historical Silk Road. Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized that the primary purpose of the Belt and Road Initiative is “to create mutual benefit and cooperation”. Similarly, in previous years, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that the Belt and Road is not a “geostrategic concept” but is part of efforts to build “a community with a common future for humanity with countries around the world”. The fact remains, however, that both political and economic motivation drives this Initiative.Jonathan Fulton: China’s economic influence is the most well-developed aspect of its global power. It has used trade, investment and contracting as a set of tools to make it a more consequential country politically. The Lowy Institute had China as the top trading partner of 128 countries in 2018, a remarkable shift since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. Of course, this commercial prominence spills over into every other aspect of other countries’ relations with the PRC, and the BRI is undoubtedly a significant part of this strategy. When it was announced in 2013, China was sitting on approximately $3.2 trillion in foreign reserves. With tremendous development needs across Eurasia – the Asian Development Bank estimated that Asia needed $8 trillion in infrastructure investment between 2010 and 2020 – the BRI put forward a valuable solution to addressing some of these concerns while putting good use to Chinese capital and, importantly, putting a positive spin on its international profile. The implementation of these BRI projects creates opportunities for Chinese SOEs and private companies and links supply chains across countries and regions, so it has the potential to facilitate trade throughout Eurasia and the Indian Ocean region in a way that will obviously benefit China, as well as those countries and companies that take advantage of it. At the same time, this is not apolitical. There will be natural spillover effects in the political, cultural, and strategic realms as a result.
So, what is the Chinese political and economic motivation behind this Initiative? In order to achieve its political and economic goals, what kind of foreign policy approach does China adopt?
Jonathan Fulton: In considering any country’s foreign policy, you need to start by looking at the domestic political and economic situation, and China is no exception. The nature of its political system means that everything needs to be considered through the lens of how it affects the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The need for economic growth and stability drives most of its leaders’ decisions because economic performance has become the central pillar of its legitimacy. The BRI creates economic opportunities at a time when China’s economy has entered ‘the new normal’ of reduced growth, largely the result of having exhausted most of the low-hanging fruit in domestic economic reform. This makes it an essential aspect of China’s domestic political stability, explaining partly why it was enshrined in the CCP’s constitution in 2017.
Beyond domestic considerations, the BRI has been necessary to articulate a Chinese vision of a less US-centered global order. China has benefited tremendously from the relative stability of the post-Cold War era in East Asia. However, it is clear that we are well into a transition away from that period. With Chinese-established institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing has demonstrated a willingness to take on a more prominent role in global affairs. It is consistent with President Xi’s assertion for China to ‘be proactive in seeking achievements’, a catchphrase he delivered in 2013 that has been interpreted as a pivot away from Deng Xiaoping’s more modest approach to foreign policy.
Question: Although the Belt and Road is a global initiative, it especially focuses on emerging markets such as Asia, East Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Indeed, according to the Belt and Road Portal, currently, 71 countries are taking part in the Initiative. Since China was established in 1949, it has made efforts to develop relations with third-world countries. How might this Initiative affect the relations between a developed China and developing countries?
Jonathan Fulton: China’s dramatic economic and development achievements since the Reform Era began in 1978 are tremendously attractive to leaders in many developing countries. Of course, China had several unique advantages that allowed it to achieve what it did when it did. However, it still is vital in promoting China’s approach as an attractive alternative to Washington Consensus prescriptions. For years Chinese leaders shied away from talk of a ‘China model’, using the metaphor of ‘crossing the river by feeling for stones’ – the idea being that it was more minor a clearly developed program than a pragmatic series of attempts to find whatever worked. Under Xi, that has changed, with Chinese officials promoting their approach to development. While its political model is not especially attractive to many, its development accomplishments are. As a result, the PRC is often perceived more favourably in the global South than in Western democratic countries.
Question: When we talk about BRI and Chinese foreign policy, I think we should refer to the perspective of the USA, which is China’s biggest rival in global supply and trade. In the Trump era, the USA and China imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of one another’s goods. While China has accused the USA of starting the biggest economic war in history, the USA has claimed that China was engaged in unfair trade practices. It is possible to say that BRI is an initiative that undermines the interests of the USA in terms of appealing to third-world countries. In light of this, what strategies should the United States employ in opposition to BRI to exert pressure on China’s foreign policy toward BRI? Or does the US have to make counter policies against it?
Jonathan Fulton: Over the past few years, Washington has tried a couple of alternatives to the BRI, the Blue Dot Network and now the Build Back Better World (B3W). The first did not get much attention and is rarely discussed anymore, and B3W is unlikely to have much of an impact given the US’s inward focus. I do not think the US can really out-China China; competing against the BRI plays to China’s strengths, which is a bad strategy. The US has to play to its own strengths. However, it is facing several substantial challenges on this front.
First and foremost is its domestic political problems, which make it hard for its policy-makers to do much in terms of a consistent foreign policy and make it less likely that other countries will put much stock in US commitments in the short term. The debacle in Afghanistan is a case in point, as is the whiplash on Iran from the Obama to Trump to Biden administrations. The rest of the world is all too aware that elections cycles in the US will continue to result in significant policy swings. A related challenge is US fatigue in many parts of the world. An inconsistent foreign policy from one administration to the next makes it hard for the US to continue being accepted as a global leader on a lot of important issues, and when Washington tries to make the case that countries should be wary of cooperating too closely with Beijing the message is often ineffective. Rather than thinking about countering the BRI, the US needs to come to some kind of consensus on what kind of role it will play in a multipolar world.
Question: Russia, one of the countries that have been significantly affected by the US sanctions, has stated that they are not entirely a part of the BRI but only a supporter of China’s global reach as long as it is in Russia’s interest. At the Belt&Road forum in 2019, President Putin emphasized that the Belt and Road initiative is in line with the goals of the Eurasian Economic Union led by Russia. Do you think that possible Russian-Chinese cooperation for BRI can create a robust stand before the global initiatives of the USA?
Jonathan Fulton: No, I think any alignment of Russia and China is rather superficial. Despite Moscow’s more muscular foreign policy over the past decade, the fact remains that this is a fundamentally asymmetrical bilateral relationship; Russia has been playing a bad hand well while China has a lot of great cards to play. Both sides consistently articulate a preference for a less US-centered global order and seem willing to cooperate at that level. However, in the long term, their interests are not going to line up. They are likely to bump up against each other on significant issues. China’s growing influence in Central Asia is a case in point. Russia continues to see this as within its natural sphere of influence. However, it cannot offer the same kind of economic opportunities that China has in recent years. I suspect Russia would be reluctant to bandwagon with China, but given the unequal distribution of power between them, it may have to accept a second-tier status or otherwise balance against China. In any case, I think talk of a deeper alignment between the two is unrealistic in the near term.
Question: From a theoretical point of view, BRI is seen as an initiative with a positive potential in contributing to the regional & global economy, encouraging cooperation, creating cultural interaction, or building infrastructure. Do you have any thoughts about some possible obstacles that may arise in proceeding with the process?
Jonathan Fulton: One of the more significant challenges facing China is the fact that despite its growing profile around the world, it remains pretty mysterious to most people. Many countries have strong ties at the elite level, where political officials or business communities engage with each other frequently, but few people in the general public learn anything meaningful about the history, culture, or language. Countries like the US, South Korea, or Japan complement deep economic ties with attractive popular cultures that make them more appealing or familiar beyond their shores. That has not been the case with China. It has been trying to project more soft power. However, a lot of its contemporary cultural products are shaped by domestic political pressures. As a result, they do not travel very well outside of China. Hip hop songs about the BRI are a ham-fisted way of getting foreign teenagers interested in China. Other countries will be happy to do business with the PRC, but at the popular level, it has to find a way of presenting itself in a way that people find attractive. It is facing an uphill battle on this front.
Question: Among the criticisms of the BRI is that it is a “debt trap”. BRI is believed to undermine global macroeconomic stability by lending to unsustainable projects, thereby increasing countries’ debt burdens. Indeed, Sri Lanka had to cede control of a port to China in 2017 to help repay foreign loans. At present, the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously damaged the economies of many developing countries. How likely is it that the Initiative will be financially successful in the future? Do you really give a chance to the idea that the BRI is a debt trap for developing and underdeveloped countries that have participated in the Project?
Jonathan Fulton: I think the ‘debt trap’ narrative is a very inelegant way of looking at what are justifiable concerns about BRI financing in some countries. The ‘debt trap’ is shorthand for predatory lending so that Chinese institutions can acquire other countries’ assets. Seen this way, the BRI is neocolonialism with Chinese characteristics. For example, Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka is consistently used as a warning for other countries dealing with the PRC comes with unexpected costs. Nevertheless, this narrative assumes partnering countries do not have any agency in dealing with China. They take bad deals because they do not know any better or because they are motivated by short term concerns. The case of Malaysia is interesting; its BRI deals with China were a major factor in its 2018 election, with the opposition coalition campaigning on concerns of an overreliance on Chinese Money. After winning, the new government successfully renegotiated the terms of its predecessors’ agreements with China. The ‘debt trap’ appears to be as deep as a partnering country’s willingness to be trapped. Local corruption is often more of a factor than a master plan in Beijing. Rather than framing BRI investments as a ‘debt trap’, it makes more sense to look at it on a country-by-country basis to get a better sense of the conditions upon which it can contribute to a country’s development needs or where it is likely to worsen them.
As for the sustainability of the BRI in the time of COVID-19, the fact that BRI is quite indistinct is a critical consideration. In the media, it is often reduced to infrastructure projects. However, the BRI white paper emphasizes five cooperation priorities: policy coordination, infrastructure development, financial integration, trade, and people-to-people connectivity. Since that document was released, the Digital Silk Road Initiative and the Health Silk Road were both announced as part of the BRI. Taken together, it is clear that nearly any type of bilateral cooperation with China becomes a BRI project, so if infrastructure construction dries up as a result of COVID-affected economies, then vaccine diplomacy or digital projects or educational initiatives will be used as evidence of BRI cooperation.
Question: The Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI), an extension of the BRI, has a route through the Indian Ocean to Europe. The commercial initiatives of China are met with opposition from India, one of its major rivals in Southeast Asia. In recent years, armament activities in the Indian Ocean have increased considerably. Is it possible that the implementation of BRI may lead to a security crisis in the region?
Jonathan Fulton: China-India competition is often underlooked. This is natural since the China-US relationship draws most of the bandwidth. However, India is a primary strategic concern for the PRC, which is evident when looking at how so much of its BRI projects have been shaping up in South Asia. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives have all been quite actively involved in various BRI projects. A lot of this seems to respond to their own concerns about Indian preeminence in the region. From Beijing’s perspective, India’s growing cooperation with the US and Japan looks like an attempt to balance China. From New Delhi’s perspective, China’s emergence as a significant factor in South Asia and across the Indian Ocean region appears to be an attempt to prevent India from becoming a great power in Asia. The two countries are on a dangerous trajectory. Implementing BRI projects along India’s periphery will only exacerbate this.
Question: Several aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative need to be discussed, but I would like to conclude the interview by asking a final question. In light of the positive and negative aspects discussed above, do you believe that the BRI is a larger-scale and more influential initiative than the Marshall Plan proposed by the United States in 1947? If you do not mind, could you comment on BRI’s future role in the global economy?
Jonathan Fulton: I am not fond of the comparison between the BRI and the Marshall Plan. They are from different eras and have different motivations, and China in the 2010s is different from the US in the 1940s. My bigger concern is that there is a prominent view in policy circles and the media that we are in the early stages of a China-US cold war, and this is leading to much sloppy thinking and reliance on cold war strategies that were used against the Soviet Union. Likening the BRI to the Marshall Plan feeds into this, as does the frequent use of Kennan-esque analysis. The deep economic interdependence between the US and China shows us that we need different ways of thinking about the bilateral relationship.
As for the future role of the BRI in the global economy, I think many countries enjoy having alternative sources of funding options, and this has made China attractive. Since global politics is becoming less centred, we can expect other countries to start playing a more prominent role in this space as well. The EU will undoubtedly find ways to compete with China on this front, and Japan, which many seem to overlook, has long been a prominent development actor across Asia. It will not be a case of China taking over, but rather China continuing to increase in status and influence while other countries do the same.