By Wang Peng Source: Global Times Published: 2019-2-25
Since its inception, the "Belt and Road" initiative (BRI) has been gaining partners around the world. The international community's attitude toward the BRI has gradually changed from initial incomprehension, suspicion and fear to one of understanding, acceptance, and participation.
Despite this overall success, however, there are still some problems. For example, some Western think tanks still misinterpret the BRI, intentionally or unintentionally, in their research reports. One typical misinterpretation is to call it the "countermeasure to the US Indo-Pacific strategy" - a claim that is groundless in terms of both logic and facts.
First of all, the timeline is twisted.
The BRI was officially proposed by China as early as the end of 2013. The initiative includes both the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. By using the historic symbol of the ancient silk road, the initiative aims at fully relying on the bilateral and multilateral mechanisms between China and other nations to actively develop economic partnerships with countries along the BRI route and to build a community of interests with mutual political trust, an integrated economy, an inclusive culture, a shared future and common responsibilities.
The US Indo-Pacific strategy appeared quite late in the official discourse. In October 2017, Rex Tillerson, then US Secretary of State, said in a speech that the Indo-Pacific region includes the entire Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific, and the nations that surround them, and declared that it "will be the most consequential part of the globe in the 21st century."
In November 2017, US President Donald Trump further elaborated on the "Indo-Pacific" concept in speeches during his first trip to Asia and the APEC summit.
Then, after the national security strategy report, the US defense strategy report and the nuclear situation assessment report were issued, the "Indo-Pacific" officially became a national strategy.
After the US Pacific Command was renamed the "US Indo-Pacific Command" on May 30, 2018, it was generally believed that the Indo-Pacific strategy would become a signature strategy of the Trump administration and see continuous implementation during Trump's tenure. At the change of command ceremony, former US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis indicated that the move was largely a response to China's strategic challenges because the Indo-Pacific region has "many belts and many roads."
Now it is clear who is targeting whom. As an open cooperative initiative based on economic development, the BRI was proposed four years earlier than the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is based on geopolitics and bilateral/multilateral alliances and targets a third party. Those who believe the BRI counters the Indo-Pacific strategy have mistaken the chronological order. How could the vision of the BRI so accurately "predict" a strategy proposed by another country four years later?
More importantly, the "countering theory" overlooks the fundamental difference between the BRI and the Indo-Pacific strategy. The former serves as a bridge to promote cultural exchanges. The implementation of the BRI has overcome cultural and religious barriers in various regions, which, rather than bringing a "clash of civilizations," has become a platform for mutual exchanges and learning between civilizations. While strengthening coordination between capacity cooperation and development strategies by pushing forward infrastructure construction, the BRI also focuses on improving people-to-people ties. By promoting the spirit of the silk road and carrying out the construction of the "smart silk road" and the "health silk road," China has been promoting extensive cooperation in science, education, culture, hygiene and non-governmental exchanges, contributing to a solid social foundation for building the BRI.
By comparison, the Indo-Pacific strategy comes with obvious exclusivity and aims at a specific target. Just as some scholars have pointed out, there are two strategic paths to choose from in the construction of the Indo-Pacific system: a governance system for public issues in the Indo-Pacific region, or an alliance system aimed at containing China's growing global influence. In other words, the Indo-Pacific region can develop either in the direction of "cooperation" or "confrontation." According to current public remarks by US politicians and scholars, the US Indo-Pacific geopolitical strategy seems to be moving more in the direction of "(group) confrontation."
Nevertheless, such a trend is not completely irreversible. If far-sighted people from China, the US and the international community can unite and act together, it is still possible to push the US Indo-Pacific strategy and the BRI in the same direction so that they can learn from and complement each other, eventually achieving win-win results and providing greater development opportunities for the entire region.
The author is an associate research fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.