On Oct. 10, 2023 the State Council of the People’s Republic of China released its first-ever White Paper on the Belt and Road Initiative. The paper came out just a month ahead of the announcement of the Global Infrastructure and Development Plan (GIDP) by the U.S, and days before the 3rd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Keeping in view the critical timing of its release, the substance of the White Paper is crucial to understanding the Chinese position. Without addressing the developments directly, China has asserted that it has a historical legacy to claim global initiatives like the Silk Route, which is both inclusive and sustainable, it is not aiming at geopolitics or preferential development and it is already making substantial progress. Therefore, China’s grand strategy BRI has an edge over the alternative proposed by U.S. President Joe Biden.
Release of White Papers is generally used by closed authoritarian setups to declare their official stance regarding matters of critical concern. In the case of China, the release of a white paper has always followed some significant event, policy, or development, to indicate China’s stance. For instance, China released a White-paper “China’s Peaceful Development” (2011) after the U.S. Pivot to Asia strategy. It released the White Paper “The Facts and China’s Position on China-U.S Trade Friction”(2018), in the wake of the trade war with the U.S. Following the same trend, the release of the White Paper on the Belt and Road initiative comes at a time, when domestically China is facing anti-corruption purges and internationally experts are anticipating slow-down of Chinese economy. There is a tech war going on between the U.S. and China, and in the middle of everything, U.S has proposed an alternative Global development plan to contest China’s BRI.
The White Paper, however, restores China’s claims against all of these developments. The ten most cited words of the white paper are BRI (182 mentions), cooperation (168 mentions), development (164 mentions), win-win (156 mentions), shared future (152 mentions), High-Quality (144 mentions), open (136 mentions), inclusive (128 mentions), sustainable (120 mentions) and progress (116 mentions). Overall, the frequency of keywords indicated four major themes that the paper highlights; “Re-imagining the Ancient Silk Route”, “High-quality Development”, “Open and Inclusive Global Economy” and “Mutual benefit and win-win cooperation”
Re-Imagining the Ancient Silk Route:
In August 2023, BRI completed a decade of success. The white paper, however, dates it back to 2 millennia, beginning from the ancient silk route. It has associated adjectives of win-win cooperation, inclusivity, mutual benefit, shared future, and economic globalization with both the ancient Silk Route and BRI. China has purposively claimed the legacy of 2 millennia, to establish that, unlike the U.S, China has a history of championing development. The paper also mentions that China was the first one to stand up for the UN vision of the Eurasian land bridge, proposed in 1980. It tends to denote that China’s vision was not based upon competitive motives, it was rather driven by the historical legacy and international demand for development. Considering the facts, U.S. has sponsored aid packages and Marshal plan, but that have only been limited to its allies, that too with geopolitical motives during the cold-war.
Open and Inclusive Global Economy:
The paper criticizes that certain states have opted for “protectionism, hegemonism, and unilateralism” in the era of the Global Economy. It proposes that, unlike the ambitions of these states, BRI has proposed an open and inclusive plan, that does not promote preferential development. Under the framework of BRI, China has signed agreements with around 150 states and 30 international organizations from all the regions of the world. On the contrary, the GIDP of the U.S. is the plan that only includes the allies and partners of the U.S. China has apparently criticized it as a geopolitical venture that would only widen the gap between the developed and the developing world. The paper establishes that BRI has no geopolitical motives and it promotes an open and inclusive global economy. However, the paper has not been able to justify the strategic concerns regarding this development. For instance, it brushed-off the issue of military development on Djibouti port, as driven by logistic purposes.
To obtain legitimacy for the future of BRI, in contrast to the GIDP, the paper states that it is not just a conceptual framework but a practical roadmap that has achieved significant milestones. Chapter 2 and 3 of the white-paper explains the projects that have been accomplished under the land-based corridors, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the New Eurasian Land Bridge, the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, China-Mongolia Russia Economic Corridor, China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor, and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor. On the maritime front, it states that BRI has reached 117 ports in 43 different countries. Regarding the Air Silk Road, China has signed agreements with 104 countries and opened direct flights with 57 partner countries.
The developments up till now have led to an increase in trade between China and the partner countries, to $19.1 trillion (Annual growth rate of 6.4%). China has engaged various regional and multilateral platforms for trade mobilization under BRI. Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are important. After the withdrawal of the U.S. from TPP, mention of Chinese willingness to join the platform is a noteworthy step. In addition to this, the paper did not forget to mention the successful Belt and Road summits held in Hong Kong SAR and the Macao SAR, to strengthen its claim alongside signaling the inclusivity of these states.
Furthermore, in the context of the ongoing tech-war, the paper mentions the mile-stones achieved across the domain of technology sharing and the digital Silk Road cooperation. China has signed intergovernmental agreements on scientific and technological cooperation with 80 BRI partner countries and additional MoUs on the digital silk route with 17 countries.
To address the controversies regarding the climatic impact of development under BRI, the paper extensively highlights the element of sustainable development. It mentions that China has signed 47 south-south MoUs on climate change with 39 states. It has also focused on developing low-carbon demonstration zones, climate change mitigation projects, and Green Development Vision 2030. However the facts state that non-hydroelectric renewables account for only 11% of the total energy production, and Coal power plants still consume a lot of investment from China.
Mutual Benefit and Win-Win Cooperation
Encompassing the complete landscape of progress that the BRI has achieved, the paper has also countered the criticism that it has faced. It has mentioned in a straightforward tone that no state under BRI has faced a debt crisis. However, the case of China’s engulfment of the Hambantota port remains a reality that cannot be denied. Keeping the facts aside, the paper argues that BRI is a project of multilateral investment, and not an aid-based grant from China. It claims that the framework of BRI has been developed after extensive and in-depth policy coordination, promoting mutual benefit and win-win cooperation. For instance, the BRI obtained the consent of 192 states through the 71st session of the UNGA and the resolution 2344.
Furthermore, the paper mentions that China has reached the Investment Facilitation for Development Agreement with the World Trade Organization, to keep the BRI abiding by the existing rule of law. To sum up, criticism posed towards the code of conduct of the BRI, will also hold the existing financial order questionable.
The paper is a deliberate and subtle attempt by the China to address the domestic and international questions regarding future of its Grand Strategy, in the wake of challenges coming from the transitioning world order. It has established that the BRI is an all-inclusive plan and holds no rival. However, it has not been able to substantially address the concerns regarding strategic motives of China behind the project as well as the challenges that it will raise for the partner countries.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.