Written by Miwa Hirono.

China’s rise brings with it a big question for the early twenty-first century: Will China change the international order? In particular, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is attracting wide attention among analysts because China’s grand international strategy might just do that. The BRI comprises the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road, both of which are transcontinental passages connecting Asia, Europe and Africa. With the Initiative, China is committed to investing in infrastructure projects along these passages, and improving ‘connectivity’ among the states within the BRI area, and with China’s far-western regions.

This Initiative is supported by institutions created by China, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). They have approaches different from those of existing international banks that embrace the liberal international order, including the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. For example, the existing banks regard liberal democracy as the cornerstone of economic development, and, therefore, attach political strings to their lending conditions. Chinese institutions, on the other hand, can lend without much political conditionality. Analyses abound in terms of how different the norms and values that Chinese institutions display are from those of the existing banks, and how critical and dangerous the Chinese norms and values are to the health of the current international order.

Showing support for China’s norms does not necessarily mean they will change their foreign policy orientation from their traditional donors to China.

Madam Fu Ying, China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, counters such analyses. In her speech at the Munich Security Summit in Feb 2018, she stated that it was important to distinguish the international order, which she equated to the ‘UN-based system’, from the ‘US-led world order’ based on an American value system and on a US military alignment, among others.

She argued that China would continue to embrace the former but would not be able to support the latter, because the US-led world order ‘is being overstretched in providing new and effective solutions to contemporary challenges’. Her comment echoed Xi Jinping’s speech at Davos in early 2017 that showed his support for trade and investment liberalisation, and reflected his 2015 speech in the United States that ‘a more just and equitable international system’ was needed. G. John Ikenberry and Darren J. Lim also argue that the liberal international order will be robust, because of – not despite – the rise of China.

While these perspectives are useful in shedding light on China’s relations with traditional donors in the existing international order, a key question often forgotten, and yet important to our understanding of the future of the international order, is how the developing world perceives China’s role in maintaining or changing the international order. The international order—whether it is the current one, or the one newly created, or reformed, by China—encompasses not only the balance of power among major states but also normative processes, and the practicality of implementing the order. Norms have to be ‘bought’ by the members of the global community, most of whom inhabit the developing world; and norms cannot amount to simple ideals. They have to be implemented, and, therefore, need to be practical.

There are mixed feelings in the developing world when it comes to perceptions of China’s BRI. On the one hand, some countries, Myanmar being perhaps the most notable example, have expressed strong discontent about an increasing Chinese presence in their country. Myanmar has strongly criticised China’s Myitsone dam project, citing its adverse social and environmental impacts, as well as the provision that up to 90 percent of the electricity the dam generates could go to China. Some of Myanmar’s social media have gone beyond this criticism to regard China as having ‘invaded’ Myanmar territory. By way of another example, China’s long-term ally, Pakistan, also scrapped a plan to construct the Diamer-Basha dam in November 2017. The project was to have been one of the signature infrastructure projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of the Silk Road Economic Belt. The reason given for scrapping the plan was a number of ‘unacceptable’ conditions on which China was ‘taking ownership of the project’. These examples demonstrate the limit of the utility of China’s business norms in the developing world.

On the other hand, other parts of the developing world demonstrate overwhelming support for the ‘China model’, which can amount to infrastructure-led development in which states maintain a firm grip on various elements of the society. This has led to admiration and consideration of emulation by a developing world tired of the continuing influence exerted by traditional powers—from even before their independence. Chinese discourses of ‘south-south cooperation’, ‘win-win relations’, ‘equality’, and ‘no political strings’ attached to aid, all sound very attractive to many in developing countries.

One may assume that people in these countries support China’s role in altering the current international order, but confirming this requires more empirical research. Their support may involve not an admiration of Chinese norms but could be a simple welcoming of an alternative to the traditional powers. Showing support for China’s norms does not necessarily mean they will change their foreign policy orientation from their traditional donors to China. The alternative may be attractive only because it remains an alternative. The key question is whether or not China’s BRI can make China the most influential actor among the developing countries, rather than just an alternative with a great deal of economic power.

Will the Belt and Road Initiative change the international order? To answer this question it is important to consider whether the actions of China, arising from its focus on the BRI, will change negative perceptions already held in developing world, and help China go beyond being a mere alternative to the traditional powers.

Dr. Miwa Hirono is an associate professor at the College of International Relations at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. She researches China’s roles in conflict/disaster-affected regions in the developing world. She would like to thank her Advanced Seminar students at Ritsumeikan who debated this question in her class and gave her the inspiration to write this article. She tweets @MiwaYang. Image Credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons.

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