China’s Belt and Road Initiative has garnered great global attention. It was discovered, however, at the 18th Euro-Asian Economic Summit Meeting, that political leaders of participating countries, from the Balkans, Central Asia and Transcaucasia have no explicit consensus on the proposal, although they showed their longing for the renewal of their section of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road intensely echoed the viewpoint that the Belt and Road boosts a Euro-Asian renaissance of civilization. At the meeting, it seemed to be the first time for many people to hear about the vision and activity of the Belt and Road. Apparently, different countries have different views of the One Belt and One Road. There is still a long way to go toward sound cooperation. The primary task of course is to clarify some misinterpretations and overcome cognitive risks.
Some people think the Belt and Road Initiative is a Chinese westward strategy in response to the US pivot to Asia. Therefore it involves a strong push from China to implement geopolitical expansion or undertake the role of a kind of Belt and Road National Development and Reform Commission, or a Ministry of Finance or even a Silk Road PLA. They talk of planning, funding and security, even trying to reveal all the alleged details. As a matter of fact, however, the Belt and Road is a great cooperative initiative, not a solo act for China. It is a real chorus comprising all the countries along the routes and it will bring tremendous opportunities for the world.
Some other people think that the Belt and Road prefer road to belt. Actually there aren’t pros and cons between the two. The systematic effects work only when Europe and Asia connect with each other and extend to Africa and the South Pacific. There are some worries that China may return to its ancient character through the renewal of the Silk Road, by which China may make countries along the route its tribute states. That worry is totally unnecessary. The Belt and Road is to restore civilization, a renewal not only of Chinese civilization but that of Euro-Asian civilization.
There is another absurd argument, that the Belt and Road Initiative is the way through which China tries to offload excess capacity, a Chinese version of the Marshall Plan or even economic imperialism. In fact the so-called excess capacity is a domestic term for China only. It is actually superior or prosperous capacity for the countries along the routes and it reflects a philosophy of turning Chinese opportunities into world opportunities. The Belt and Road is a public product China offers to the international community which adheres to the principle of broad consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits. It is open and inclusive, not exclusive.
Some countries still take a different stand: The Belt and Road Initiative is the revival of Sino-centrism, Chinese diplomacy with peripheral countries. The emphasis on joint policies, techniques and standards, for example, may impress people as a way of making others reach out for China, instead of the opposite direction. Take the joint season plan with India for instance. Is it a heartfelt plan or a plan that can be brought into the orbit of the Belt and Road? It is necessary to clarify these vague understandings to avoid cognitive risks. It is interconnection, not a unilateral link. And since the concept of peripheral countries is somewhat China-centered, it’s better to replace that term with “neighboring countries”. The Belt and Road emphasizes regional governance rather than a simple peripheral or multilateral diplomacy.
Some countries believe that initiative forms a closed loop. They even draw it as a closed loop on currently popular maps. Actually it is open: a network of capital construction, investment, business and information, rolling the economic corridors into one. It emphasizes starting a new concept of regional and international cooperation for the 21st century rather than following the well-beaten track of expansionist western countries.
From China’s point of view, it is expected that countries along the routes and other participating countries can reach a common understanding: the Belt and Road is the collective memory of these countries, especially European and Asian countries. The Belt and Road Initiative is the common cause of the countries who share a mutual insistence on the principle of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits. Countries along the routes shall cooperate in this great project and share the risks. In this way, the ancient Silk Road may radiate forceful vitality in the new era.
The author is the director of the Belt and Road Research Project at Chongyang Financial Research Institute, Renmin University of China.