Written by Paulo Duarte.
If once all roads led to Rome, today Beijing strives to ensure that all roads lead, in the medium and long term, to China, making the country a global mega hub. The high-speed railways which aim at connecting East and West, via Central Asia, play a crucial role here.
In addition, the sea, the maritime supply and communication lines, the so-called String of Pearls, the South Pacific, the Arctic and Antarctica and, ultimately, space, are not stationary borders, they are susceptible to expansion, exploitation and incursion to accommodate Chinese national interests. There are no forbidden borders to China. There cannot be. The country needs to feed one fifth of the world’s population and to get resources wherever they are.
This is why, given all these energy, food and political circumstances (the maintenance of the regime), Xi Jinping’s China bets on the One Belt One Road (OBOR), as an instrument likely to support the (re)emergence of the country. Pax Americana reflects a purely transitional paradigm to a new order: Pax Sinica. It is not a matter of whether the United States will make way to China in the firmament of world power, but rather, how long this process will take. Years, decades?
At a time when the US is building walls around itself China is betting on the opposite: breaking walls and barriers, building more aircraft carriers, generating and multiplying links between continents, accelerating exchanges and promoting the yuan.
Times change, as do the actors, but the logic remains. There is nothing new in what China is doing. A great plan, a growing interest in international organisations, as well as in the most remote regions of the world and their resources, a quantitative and qualitative modernisation of the armed forces.
In fact, there is a realpolitik, an imperialist and expansionist logic inherent in China’s OBOR. China can present it as a win-win project, but China seeks space, connectivity, access, mineral and energy resources, in short, an expansion that will enable it to sustain its population growth and the continuity of its political regime. The U.S. had a similar plan several decades ago: a strategy to develop its hard power and soft power.
The world still identifies itself with the American dream. It seduces. China is building its Chinese Dream, made of nostalgia, but at the same time, of pragmatism. The Chinese miss the past and are hungry for the future. They are nostalgic; a considerable part of Chinese foreign policy is explained by nostalgia and by the humiliations inflicted by the West and by Japan. The time of the Chinese OBOR is the time of a déjà vu, of a power that aspires to be, once again, the Middle Kingdom it had been before.
Land, sea and space are the ingredients of a universal strategy, of peaceful (re)emergence, paradoxically imbued with realist contours. Pax Americana, thus, gradually, gives way to a new made in China context, with important implications for regional and global integration.
At the political level, the OBOR is a narrative aimed at mitigating the International Community’s concerns regarding China’s rise, as well as at legitimising the Party’s continuity. Besides, the bet on a soft power aims to ensure that economic development is driven in an advantageous way for Beijing. At the economic level, China intends to provide momentum to its yuan vis-à-vis the US dollar. China wants to (re)bring Europe closer to Mackinder’s Heartland, thus weakening the long transatlantic momentum. At the military level, railways allow a projection of extraordinary hard and soft power, being able to mobilise the People’s Liberation Army for several theatres. In turn, in the maritime context, Gwadar and Djibouti are logistic hubs for a Navy that, inspired in Mahan, needs to protect the merchant navy.
Overall, China’s march to the West may be complementary to the efforts of a EU seeking the Eastern way. The OBOR has a lot to offer to Europe, and the latter very much to gain by revisiting Mackinder’s heartland, Central Asia, in a return to History, through a fusion of synergies with the Chinese connectivity project, where in the medium/long term, it will be possible to connect London to Beijing by rail in just 48 hours. China’s OBOR aims to make the EU an important partner, as evidenced by Chinese investments in Europe, the Chinese interest to collaborate in the Juncker Plan, the China-Europe railway links, or the good reception of several European States towards the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank
I believe, like Khanna (2012), that within the reconfiguration of the role of Central Asia – which takes place in conjunction with the evolution of the balance of power in a world that the author calls post-American – the Eurasian heartland will tend to go out of its isolation. This says a lot of America’s future position in a world where more people may be travelling across Eurasia by rail than flying across the Atlantic to America. Such winds of change may give way to a beginning of an extraordinary geopolitical and geoeconomic world reconfiguration.
In Pax Sinica, Chinese policy has been guided by the principle of non-interference. It is not strange that China has officially opened (on August 1st 2017) its first overseas military base in Djibouti, where other foreign powers already have permanent contingents on the ground. Many other bases will follow. At a time when the US is building walls around itself China is betting on the opposite: breaking walls and barriers, building more aircraft carriers, generating and multiplying links between continents, accelerating exchanges and promoting the yuan. A great plan needs a great currency.
China’s OBOR is guided by a commercial and ostensibly benign logic – trade as a source of peace. There are no neglected regions, the Chinese invitation is for everyone because, strictly speaking, the new made in China order, or Pax Sinica, can only be developed if China reaches everyone, without obstacles, without delay. I conclude by inviting the reader to question: Will China adapt to international law or will this latter have to adapt to the assertiveness of a superpower voracious in its acquisition of energy and food resources? Is it not time for the international community to start considering how China will fit (or how will the international community fit to China) within a planet of scarce resources?
Paulo Duarte is a researcher at Instituto do Oriente in Lisbon. He obtained his PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the Catholic University of Louvain. Dr. Duarte is an expert on China’s One Belt One Road, China and world Politics, and Central Asia, where he conducted extensive doctoral research in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.
 Khanna, P. (2012). “The new Silk Road is made of iron and stretches from Scotland to Singapore”. Quartz.