China’s Belt and Road promise, Asia’s fear and greed
22 May 2017|

Beijing’s great celebration of the Belt and Road Initiative was a lavish display of China’s promise and power. All those nations paying court to Xi Jinping’s celebratory circus confront the conflicting emotions captured by a fine journalistic phrase-maker who won a day job as Australia’s Prime Minister. Asked by Angela Merkel in 2014 what was driving Oz China policy, Tony Abbott got it into one vivid phrase: ‘fear and greed’.

Abbott’s zinger resonates across Asia as it does in Australia. Power shifts riding on huge wealth effects naturally produce avarice and apprehension. ‘Power’ can be both a plural or singular noun; and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is dollar power dancing with soft power while holding hands with hard power.

Just as the Beijing Olympics was a moment of greatness, Beijing’s BRI bonanza is another magnificently-staged moment: China reaches out to 60 countries with infrastructure, trade, finance—and ambition.  Exporting China’s model will be extremely difficult. Lots won’t work. Plenty of cash will gurgle away. Factor in many failures as China tries to build big in foreign climes.

Yet if Beijing delivers only half of its BRI promises, that’s a lot of power created, an even bigger leadership role for China, and a greatly enhanced web of bilateral and regional relationships.

Xi’s dream is of the dominant Asian power cementing its dominance with cement. The world’s second biggest economy in dollar terms—and since 2014 the world’s biggest economy in purchasing power parity—is rolling out mountains of dollars. While Donald Trump looks inward to make America great again, Xi reaches out to make China great again on the world stage.

Watching it all in Beijing, Rowan Callick saw a party with lots of power dimensions:

‘China under Xi has moved into the space left by Washington, as a can-do, big-picture, global-scale economic mover and shaker—with geopolitical strings attached.

No one can afford to ignore or underestimate China, the only country with the economic grunt to carry this off. The timing for BRI is fortuitous and impeccable.’

Australia’s former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, says Beijing has three BRI imperatives:

  1. Economic: diversify holdings of foreign assets away from US Treasury notes, as part of China’s ‘Go Global’ strategy; plus foreign infrastructure provides a vent for China’s growing excess capacity as its own infrastructure needs are built out.
  2. Internal stability: developing the poorer remote border provinces.
  3. Strategic: ‘China is presenting a new narrative to the world: that it has the will, resources and ideas to provide global leadership and it intends to reshape the international order.’

What China has already built in Asia this century is the model for what it wants to replicate on a larger scale. And what China has already done shows the pitfalls. Beijing’s major infrastructure build in Sri Lanka was based on President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his political machine. Rajapaksa’s election loss in 2015 was partly about Sri Lankans rejecting a Chinese embrace. The same story can be read into Myanmar’s 2011 decision to walk away from a giant Chinese dam project; Myanmar’s regime turned towards democracy as it turned away from Chinese dominance.

Evelyn Goh’s depiction of China’s rising influence in developing Asia shows a patron that doesn’t get all it wants from its supposed clients. In contrast to the US’s security-focussed approach, Goh sees China offering Asia an economic and development partnership with these characteristics:

  • Beijing doesn’t try to make its developing neighbours do what they otherwise wouldn’t have done. Instead, China meets development imperatives with ‘quick and non-transparent bilateral investments’.
  • China’s strategic intent is to invest in its influence in Asia, building goodwill as a hedge against future opposition.
  • China doesn’t easily achieve what it wants—the extent of China’s influence tends to depend on domestic dynamics in target states.
  • The systemic impact of China’s growing power in developing Asia is constrained by broader structural conditions, international institutions and rules still dominated by the West.

Goh describes Chinese blind spots that’ll be important in how BRI plays out. Beijing, she writes, downplays the autonomy of its neighbours/clients, seeing any deviation from Beijing’s vision as the dark machinations of other great powers. China overlooks the contradictions between its ‘benign modes of influence’ and its coercive behaviour in the South China Sea.

Chinese policymakers see the toughening stances of rival claimants in the South China Sea as being caused by the US, Goh writes:

‘rather than as nationalist responses to Chinese assertiveness in bilateral conflicts. Chinese analysts, policymakers and public opinion are experiencing a dissonance between their growing material power and their perceived lagging status, influence and effectiveness in the international realm. It is by no means clear that Beijing is easily able to win over developing countries to which it can promise quick credit and cheap infrastructure.’

A lot of those offered BRI largesse will take the money now and worry about Chinese influence later. Australia sits on the fence, attending the Beijing jamboree but not embracing the Initiative.

Canberra confronts the dilemma it struggled with when China created the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank. On AIIB, Australia pushed aside fear and embraced greed. Or, more politely, ambition trumped apprehension. BRI asks Australia the AIIB question on a bigger scale. The answer Canberra gives will be an important readout on how Australia’s sees the greed-and-fear balance involved in an ever-greater China.