The Chinese Government’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is seen by that country’s leadership as the latest phase of the opening of China’s economy to international commerce.
It is motivated, first and foremost, by China’s need to maintain a fast pace of growth, so that the remaining pockets of poverty may be eliminated, and income inequalities between town and country may be reduced. The Chinese leadership recognizes that by trading and investing around the globe, they create opportunities for Chinese producers, and make available consumer products and tourist opportunities that improve the lives of the Chinese people.
They also appreciate that their foreign trade and investment initiatives will be most successful if they are of great benefit to the recipient countries.
This was the message of the second Confucius Institute Lecture, delivered by Professor Hongsheng Ren at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill on January 28, 2019.
Professor Ren pointed out that China’s GDP rose at the extraordinary rate of 9.5 per cent per year from 1978, reaching US$14 trillion in 2018. This was second only to the US, with $20 trillion, and a long way ahead of third placed Japan, with $5 trillion. China is now Number Two globally in GDP and foreign investment, and Number One in trade and foreign reserves.
Even though China’s GDP is very large, its large population means that average household incomes remain in the middle range of countries globally. China is a developing country, and its development strategies are largely geared towards the development and modernization of its own economy.
As a developing country, however, China is sensitive to the needs of other developing countries, and it has now become the world’s largest foreign aid donor.
Chinese are travelling abroad in increasing numbers, for tourism, work and study, with the encouragement of their Government. This has benefitted both China and the travellers’ host countries, and it has fostered the growth of knowledge and deepened the mutual understanding of Chinese travellers and their hosts. The Chinese Government has established Confucius Institutes in many countries to provide an introduction to Chinese society and culture.
The Chinese leadership has embraced the international institutions for global governance established by Western nations in the wake of the Second World War, including the UN, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO.
Ironically, even though Western nations cling to the top posts of the IMF and the World Bank, their interest in these institutions has now faded. In response, China and Asian nations have been obliged to come up with alternative arrangements to the Fund and the Bank, in particular the Chiang Mai Agreement (for mutual balance of payments support) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese initiative.
ERADICATE URBAN POVERTY
Countries at all levels of development and in all regions of the globe are nowadays faced with problems of uneven growth and opportunities, with regions and communities that lag behind the national average.
Central to the Chinese development strategy are measures to address inequities between town and country, and between booming coastal cities and the interior. The Chinese leadership also aims to eradicate urban poverty. Western nations should observe the Chinese experiment with interest, because the Chinese leadership have taken deliberate aim at inequalities which are at the heart of social and political tensions in the West.
China’s open-economy development strategy has evolved organically into the Belt and Road Initiative. The germ of the idea was to revive ancient Silk Road trading routes by building a continuous road and rail network linking Beijing with European transport hubs such as Rotterdam.
A month after he announced this Silk Road Economic Belt, President Xi announced the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a strategic chain of port developments that form a link from Fuzhou on the Chinese east coast all the way to Venice and Athens. The BRI has since grown into a vision of international cooperation, fueled mainly by Chinese finance, which includes policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people exchanges.
The network, which as originally conceived included Asian, European and East African countries, has expanded to include Latin American and Caribbean members.
WORLDVIEW OF CHINA
Professor Ren provided a fascinating table summarizing the different worldviews of China and the West, a topic which was expanded on in the UWI Global Belt and Road Symposium, held at the Cave Hill campus on January 29, 2019.
At that symposium, Professor Dragana Mitrovic of the University of Belgrade told us that the BRI was enthusiastically received by many countries, because it promised to give a boost to international commerce, through investment in ports, airports, communications, energy and other infrastructure.
Over 60 countries have now joined the network. However, some commentators in Western countries see the rise of China as a tussle for global hegemony with the established power, the US. In his contribution to the Symposium, Professor Andy Knight of the University of Alberta elaborated on this point of view. European Union regulators have also expressed some skepticism about the BRI, arguing that ecological and social protections in projects under the BRI umbrella were inadequate.
In addition, Professor Gordon Houlden of the University of Alberta remarked that India and Japan are not keen on the BRI, perhaps because it competes with their own regional and global ambitions. In response to these arguments the Chinese point out that their motive is domestic results, not global hegemony. Because the population is so large, China needs the world stage to maintain its pace of growth.
What cannot be gainsaid is that China has contributed massively to the wellbeing of mankind by lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, and in the process adding enormous production capacity to world manufacturing. Moreover, China has gained great economic power relative to other nations because of this.
Professor Ren’s table presents us with a choice between Western worldviews that democracy is the foundation of stability and peace, and should be adopted by all countries, and Chinese views, that it is development, not democracy, which leads to stability and peace, and that every country must be free to choose its socio-political system.
Former Barbados Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, began his contribution to the symposium with a quotation from a speech by the English statesman Edward Canning to the British House of Commons on December 12, 1826: “I called a New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old.”
He sees China in this role, vis-à-vis the US. The BRI, in his view, is a strategy for China to grow, to access raw materials, and to finance investment that enlarges employment opportunities for Chinese people. Because China’s approach to international relations is through mutually respectful dialogue, China’s rise has the potential to usher in new, more civilized norms for international commerce.
The explicit Chinese commitment to non-intervention in the affairs of others demonstrates a welcome absence of coercion in the conduct of international relations.
BENEFITS FOR THE CARIBBEAN
Ideas on potential additional benefits for the Caribbean, beyond China’s excellent value-added proposition, are suggested by Professor Ren’s lecture and the BRI Symposium, as well as by lectures in 2018 by Dr Chelston Brathwaite and Dr. Delisle Worrell. It was suggested that the Caribbean’s distance from China is a helpful circumstance, freeing the region from apprehensions that closer association might result in Chinese dominance of our societies and economies.
Caribbean nations should join hands to cultivate relationships with China as this can provide new avenues for development, for example, in areas where the Caribbean is subject to unfair practices by the US and the OECD.
Caribbean-China networks should be organized and strengthened, to help to identify emerging possibilities for trade, commerce and cultural exchanges.
The Caribbean needs to wake up to the fact that, like all the rest of the world, we are already benefitting in tangible ways from China’s economic success. The Caribbean should therefore avoid taking sides in the fights that Western nations have chosen to pick with China.
In January 2018, Caribbean countries joined our Latin American neighbours in embracing the Belt and Road Initiative at the Ministerial Forum between China and the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, at a meeting in Santiago, Chile. Prime Minister Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago has led the way for the Caribbean, and in May 2018 he signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Belt and Road co-operation with Chinese Premier Li Kiang, during a visit to Beijing.