Last week, the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) took place in Beijing. Dozens of heads of state and government took part in the Forum, including undoubtedly the main guest, Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the same time, compared with the previous Forum, which was held two years ago, in May 2017, the number and notoriety of the foreign participants involved increased sufficiently. If in 2017, aside from Russia, the countries represented were predominantly from the so-called “Third World,” now in attendance were many dignitaries from Europe and other developed regions of the planet.
It’s no wonder. The world always needs an alternative. The question is what form this alternative takes. In case of the USSR, the alternative, at first glance, was also very attractive. However, it soon became the negative image of a totalitarian monster, unable to provide its citizens with an adequate standard of living. China seeks to offer a different image of the alternative – not a military camp with missiles, but a space of common prosperity. This is the essence of the Chinese strategy of competition with the United States for global leadership.
Without a doubt, this competition has already started. Despite the fact that the first volleys of the “trade wars” were heard from Washington after President Donald Trump came to power, the decisions of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which took place on October 18–24, 2017 in Beijing, created the objective conditions for the start of the competition. Incidentally, the election of Trump as US President almost coincided with the adoption of China’s new set of goals; the realisation of these objectives should compel the United States to relinquish partial control of the global economy. In this connection, it is possible to assume that both objective and subjective conditions have developed for a new global confrontation. Moreover, the first jabs at China were made by Barack Obama’s administration.
But the point is not only that there was a numeric increase in participants at the Forum or a broadening in their geographical representation. The very nature of the event and the initiatives have changed. A few years ago, the Belt and Road was considered, first and foremost, a transport, infrastructure and investment project. The main assessments were made regarding the extent of the implementation of the Belt’s investment projects and how it would increase overland trade between China and Europe and integrate the associated logistics and production capabilities of Russia, Kazakhstan and China. This task, of course, has not been shelved. The Eurasian land bridge, while not posing serious competition to maritime trade routes, is already visible on the international trade map. Moreover, cooperation between Russia and China in the framework of the Belt and Road strategy’s implementation provides a significant contribution to the development of Central Asia. The complementary approach of Moscow and Beijing to the region makes it possible to remove all suspicions about competition between them. The project linking the Eurasian Economic Union and the BRI can be considered a success story – in May 2018, a cooperation agreement was signed between the EAEU and China, allowing for the further development of cooperation on a wide range of issues. But the main thing is that the EAEU in this agreement acted as one of the full parties, which significantly strengthened its position in the international arena as a whole.
However, in addition to obvious achievements, the Forum in Beijing revealed strategic changes to the whole Belt and Road concept. Most speakers agreed that in addition to retaining its core meaning as a project, the concept was broadening to encompass a venue for international interaction tasked with accomplishing development tasks on a global basis. This was a key point made during the inaugural session of the Belt and Road Think Tank Network Council, held on April 23-25 on the side-lines of the Forum. The representatives of 16 think tanks representing research organisations from around the world took part in the working session. Russia was represented by the Valdai Discussion Club.
Already a year ago, it was obvious that the root cause of the US-China confrontation was that for the first time since the fall of the USSR, Beijing is offering developing countries an alternative source of resources necessary for their development. If only 10-15 years ago, a government in Asia, Africa or Latin America had to apply to the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank for investment, now there are Belt and Road funds. This alternative, in addition to generally reducing the West’s ability to maintain its dominance through military force, poses a direct threat to the positions of the United States and its allies. While the USSR was always a marginal force, the appeal of which presumed the abandonment of the basic principles of the market economy, then China acts in an open, transparent, market-oriented space. In other words, it does not propose an alternative, wretched and deformed chessboard, as the USSR did, it plays the same game as the West. The Chairman of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jingping spoke about this in his speech at the opening of the Forum. This is undoubtedly the most important factor in determining how the world will proceed following the current general disorder. If China succeeds, then the world will gradually form two stable poles of power. Small and medium-sized players will be able to choose which of these poles to lean against, and the great powers – Russia, India, and possibly Europe – will be able to balance out the opposing US and China to maintain relative international stability.
The second major strategic change was the apparent movement of China towards the creation and development of multilateral venues to discuss critical international development issues. Traditionally, Chinese foreign policy was aimed at resolving issues in a two-way format, “face to face.” Now Beijing is increasingly adopting a strategy that was previously mainly in use in the United States and among its closest allies. The ability to create broad international coalitions rather than acting alone has been the key to success in the past and remains so in the modern world. It is no coincidence that the United States has always prevented the creation of such groups if it couldn’t control them. In every way they welcomed the preservation of the “strategic loneliness” of China, Russia and India.
In addition, the creation of broad multilateral networks will be able to solve the main problem – to remove concerns about the growing power of China among small and medium-sized Asian countries. For China itself, a multilateral philosophical approach to resolving major international problems is a reliable way to overcome its own predisposition towards excessive self-reliance. Historical experience shows that the distance between a policy of “accumulate strength, keep a low profile” and great-power self-confidence may turn out to be too short. At that point, the aspiring power will face serious problems. China can become a truly global leader and “wise hegemon”, but only if it relies on multilateral approaches and institutions. In particular, Russian diplomacy has always called upon China to take such steps.And last but not least. Every power (to maintain international order, power is a required element) needs to be personified. It is another matter, and this is a matter of principle, whether such power takes the form of rigid domination, or it is ready to adopt flexible, multilateral mechanisms in order to resolve critical issues. In order to implement its ambitious development programme, China needs enormous resources. Making it so that access to these resources is accompanied by the receipt of relative benefits by all participants in the process is an exceptionally difficult task. And here Russia, as evidenced by the statements of its president at the Belt and Road Forum, is ready to be for the PRC not merely a junior ally, but an equal partner.