Belts, Roads, and Non-Hegemonic Dreams

The international conference held in Beijing last month to promote China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” or “One Belt, One Road,”  attracted considerable media coverage and commentary. The coverage in Western and other non-Chinese media addressed two predominant themes which often accompany accounts of China’s rise. The first is that the initiative marks the emergence of a new Chinese “world order” (CNN, New York Times, Los Angles Times, The Nation, Deutsche Welle, Manila Times, DAWN etc.). This has been a longstanding imaginary regarding China’s probable futures, and one which appeared in the West long before Chinese leaders themselves began promoting new roles for China in the global economic order. Over the past year, however, the imaginary has appeared, to use a hedging phrase invented by Latour, to “gain in reality.” One obvious reason for this is how the Trump administration has seemingly abandoned the premise that the United States is the “indispensable” underwriter of Pax Americana (although it’s too early to know how that will affect post-Trump politics).  In this context, Xi Jinping’s public comments defending globalization, and criticizing protectionism have been celebrated by global elites as evidence that China might take on the presumed role as underwriter of the global capitalist system.

This assumption remains controversial in China, but discourse about the Belt and Road increasingly embraces world-making themes that attempt to combine three otherwise distinct worlds. A good reference for exploring this is Chinese Ambassador to Tanzania Lu Youqing’s explainer for the initiative.

The first world is a “revitalized” pre-modern Eurasian-African trading network:

“As early as two thousand years ago, China opened up a network of trade routes both on land and at sea. The land route started from Chinese inland cities and reached the Mediterranean countries through Central Asia.”

There is much issue to be taken with the words “China opened up” insofar that these routes were the product of varied agents across the Eurasian landmass and Indian Ocean littoral, including but not limited to China.

The second world is a modified version of neoliberal globalization emphasizing open borders, but balanced with the language of sovereignty and self-authorship.

“On the basis of respecting each other’s sovereignty and security concerns, countries along ‘The Belt and Road’ should improve the connectivity of their infrastructure construction plans and technical standard systems improve investment and trade facilitation, and remove investment and trade barriers for the creation of a sound business environment (italics added).

The resemblance to the status quo is then qualified by delegating interpretation to a scholar.

“Mr Lu Jianing, chairman of the Far East Branch of Russian Academy of Science, said that the Belt and Road Initiative is different from other development programs of the west. It offers a better option for the world than the old globalisation under the control of US.” (italics added).

This leads in turn to echoes of a third world once imagined during the era of Afro-Asian cooperation in the 1960s and 1970s, but re-purposed now in more reformist terms:

“The old international political and economic order was set up by western powers based on their financial, technological and rule advantages. The old order limits the growth of developing countries and widens the gap between the South and North. The participants of the Belt and Road Initiative are mostly developing or least developed countries.

Through this initiative, China will share with them the dividend of its development and reform, as well as its experiences and lessons learned in growth. China will also transfer abroad its competitive production capacity and industries with comparative advantages” (Italics added).

There is a subtle shift which often factors into arguments which equate the mid-20th century search for global economic alternatives to the contemporary rise of South-South relations; a shift from an anti-capitalist critique based in revolutionary politics to a critique of north-south underdevelopment as a correctable bad policy.

The result is less a new world order, than a reformed world order.

“It is at such a difficult moment for the world when western powers are struggling with their own economy, China launched the Belt and Road Initiative, which is like a warm current that brought new hope for global recovery. The Belt and Road Initiative conforms to the trend featuring a multi-polar world, a globalised economy, diversified culture and informationised society.”

The Belt and Road Initiative is a big tent which is intentionally broad in scope, so as to appeal to varied regional elites, publics, and aspirations.

The second theme in critiques of the Initiative is that the Belt and Road Initiative is “really” about China’s national self-interest; whether an effort to find productive outlets for China’s state-owned construction companies facing an over-accumulation crisis of infrastructure in China, or a projection of geopolitical power. In support of the second theme, articles have quoted heavily from Indian and European government sources criticizing the initiative for a lack of “transparency” and a lack of guarantees that the bidding process will be “open.” The support for the initiative depends on the extent to which non-Chinese capital is able to profit; and much of the more supportive non-Chinese editorials to be found focus on “how [insert country here] can benefit.”

The two themes share a symbiotic relationship which reveal one of the longstanding contradictions of discourse about globalization: the imaginary of a flattened global marketplace with open borders on the one side, and the dependence of such of world on political-military hegemony on the other. Rendered another way, it’s the contradiction between globalization as exchange and reciprocity on the one hand, and anxieties about power and inequality on the other.

The argument that the Belt and Road Initiative is “self-interested” is curious because it presumes an alternative reality where states promote investment without “self-interest” and in the interest of the recipients of investments; an ideological premise which says more about the imaginaries of globalization than how the politics of international investment actually unfold. China’s own discourse about the Belt and Road Initiative bears some responsibility for these “unmasking” critiques because it frequently takes an explicit stance that these initiatives are not self-interested.Consider the following from Lu Youqing’s editorial:

“There is no hegemonic agenda or political conditions attached, granting full freedom of development to all participants.It is a public product offered by China to the world. It’s applicable everywhere and will serve anywhere as a strong drive of economic growth. “ (Italics added).

Emerging states have frequently framed their own expansion and development of transnational capital networks in terms of worldmaking and/or international law. (i.e. Hugo Grotius against the Portuguese , the Americans’ “open doors” against the Europeans). These worlds were never simply functional products of rising hegemonies, however, but a confluence of visions; uneasily reconciling emancipatory visions with imperial ones.

The history of the concept of the silk road and the Indian Ocean includes both, but that’s a different discussion.

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