China is still rethinking its role on the world arena, and the answer to the question of what role it assigns itself has not yet been found. That is why the theory of the “Chinese threat” is so effective, as it reflects more the fear of the unknown and presumed destruction of the values of the neo-liberal order, than the real ability of the PRC to turn relations with its partners into an analogue of a traditional “tributary system,” writes Anastasia Pyatachkova, a researcher at the National Research University Higher School of Economics.
The departure from Deng Xiaoping’s formula “to accumulate strength, to keep a low profile” is already obvious. China has already taken steps to demonstrate a more active role in international affairs. In the early 2000s, the idea of “China’s peaceful rise” was put forward later to be replaced by the “peaceful development” formula. Hence the appeal to the traditions of antiquity connoted an attempt to draw strength from the China of the past and to find effective strategies for behaviour amid new international realities.
It seems that the Belt and Road initiative can be viewed precisely in this capacity – as a way to consolidate the proactive role of China in international affairs (as opposed to the reactive role which it adhered to earlier). The geography of the BRI’s coverage is also an argument in favour of the desire of China to make the initiative an integral part of the emerging world order, where China would have the opportunity to offer its own rules of the game. The BRI’s implicit reference to the historic Silk Road is an additional opportunity to provide legitimacy to the initiative, to emphasize its benefits and long-term nature. China is channelling its diplomacy through the BRI, calling for the joint resolution of problems for the benefit of the region, which, if successful, can help counter assumptions of a “Chinese threat” and improve the international image of the PRC, especially among its neighbours.
However, the initiative remains subject to regular criticism, and China’s actions often resemble a trial and error method rather than a verified long-term strategy. This is vividly illustrated by the examples of Pakistan, Myanmar and Malaysia, as well as a number of other countries that face difficulties in the implementation of their commitments under the BRI. At the same time, the ability of China to properly cope with such a global project will be an indicator of its maturity as an international player.
Thus, although China’s “search for itself” continues, due to the scale of the BRI, one can hardly expect Beijing to abandon its implementation, which means that the structure of international relations and the ability of China to influence the international order will depend on the effectiveness of development of the initiative.
Belt and Road in Europe: An apple of discord?
Europe’s perception of the BRI is equally ambiguous. The growing involvement of China in European projects significantly influences changes in transport flows and economic ties to the region, and it intensifies competition for investments. At the same time, the growth of Chinese investments often occurs within the framework of the BRI’s implementation: for example, with the participation of the Silk Road Fund, the Italian company Pirelli acquired (for more information, see Valdai Paper 82 “ The Belt and Road Initiative and Its Impact on Europe”).
Considering the already-difficult situation with “European unity” and the potential inequality between the countries of the region, the BRI can play a dual role in Europe: on the one hand, to create opportunities for economic growth, while on the other, it may become another “apple of discord”, provoking disunity between those European forces that support the influx of Chinese money, and those that hope to contain it.
Russia and the BRI
Russia supports the BRI and is participating in a project to establish an international forum between the EAEU and the BRI (a corresponding agreement was signed in 2015); a number of bilateral projects are also being discussed as part of the BRI.
In general, we can say that participation in the BRI meets Russia’s interests, both geopolitically in terms of maintaining a high level of relations with the PRC, and geo-economically, since the initiative has largely an applied nature and is aimed to improve living conditions in the region (including the improvement of transport infrastructure, the creation of new jobs, etc.).
At the same time, the subject matter of the latest BRI forum’s discussions did not change substantially since the last such meeting. The current perception of the BRI is tarnished by the lack of specific tangible results of this initiative, as well as the general track record of its implementation in other countries, namely, its vagueness, largely geopolitical features, the inability of a number of states to repay debts, etc.
Taking into account the idea of creating a “Greater Eurasia”, which is important for Russia, the promotion of the BRI can be successful only if coordinated joint projects and systematic work on their implementation take into account national priorities, as well as aim to achieve concrete results.