Australian defense expert Paul Dibb writes for the Australian an op-ed that is highly critical of China's Belt & Road Initiative. Please join the discussion.
The usual suspects in Australia (economists and business people) are already fulsome in their praise for China’s so-called “One Belt One Road” or “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) mega economic project. Over last weekend, President Xi Jinping mounted a massive propaganda campaign before 30 heads of state at a global summit to sell this $1 trillion economic proposition with its emphasis on infrastructure connectivity by building ports, railways and pipelines across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
The One Belt idea is to connect by land China’s remote western provinces with Central Asia and then through the Middle East to markets in Europe. The One Road element proposes to link China’s maritime trade routes from the East and South China Seas and the Straits of Southeast Asia through to the Indian Ocean and East Africa.
Economic commentators see nothing wrong in this and are asserting that it is a key misunderstanding to describe the BRI as being prescriptive in nature and dictated by Beijing. Some go so far as to assert that “even the most negative will be encouraged to concede that China cannot be so easily cast as a belligerent, assertive and self-interested actor.” Oh really?
Such naive assertions fail to explore the geopolitical imperatives suffusing this idea hatched in Beijing, as well as the associated incredible assertion by President Xi Jinping in his keynote address on May 14 that we all share common values with China.
The geopolitics of this are simple: Beijing is seeking to use its huge economic wealth to secure the supply of energy and key raw materials from Central Asia, the Middle East and Siberia and improve its access to the European market for its exports by land. From a geostrategic perspective, however, this also involves China building naval bases in a “string of pearls” in such places as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti – even though in the past Beijing has always asserted that, unlike Western countries, it would never build military bases overseas.
According to David Vines, a former professor of economics at Oxford University, many in Europe fear that China will use the BRI in ways that have strategic implications for Europe itself. They are suspicious that China will seek to create political and economic dependencies among the poorer eastern European Union
states, using its massive infrastructure investments to exert political leverage. And in our region, India is certainly suspicious of the huge sums of money Beijing is pouring into Pakistan to build strategic highway from the western Chinese province of Xinjiang through Pakistan held Kashmir to its naval base on the Indian Ocean at Gwadar.
This then is not just some altruistic Chinese idea of economic cooperation and sustainable development of benefit to all, as President Xi would have it. There can be no doubt that China is looking to expand decisively its sphere of influence at a time when America is being diverted by President Trump’s isolationist and protectionist tendencies. The BRI initiative is part and parcel of Xi’s ambition to fill this vacuum and create a new international order with a hierarchy based on China’s wealth.
Then there is the rather stark attempt by President Xi to burnish his image as a global statesman by pronouncing that we all share common values. So, last weekend we witnessed the leader of the Communist Party of China espousing a litany of common values we all allegedly share, including: a mutual trust in a harmonious and peaceful world, embarking on a new journey together, a common vision of openness and inclusiveness, and building a big family with harmonious coexistence (he even cited the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence straight out of the Cold War propaganda lexicon).
These glib and soporific utterances were followed by these pledges: President Xi promised that China will not follow “the old way of geopolitical games but create a new model of win-win”. Beijing would not rely “on gunboat diplomacy” but would respect other countries territorial integrity (presumably in the South China Sea?). And – most incredibly of all – “we have no intention to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, export our own social system and
model of development, or impose our will on others.” So there we have it, a completely reformed China. But, of course, there is a major catch: he wants to see “partnerships of dialogue with no confrontation and of friendship rather than alliance.” That should prove to be of great reassurance to Australia and Japan, let alone NATO Europe. All we need to do is get rid of ANZUS and we can rely on China’s peaceful and harmonious intentions.
As to Xi Jinping’s promise that China has no intention to interfere in other countries internal affairs, the Secretary of the Department of Defence Dennis Richardson in his speech to the National Press Club last Friday accused China of been “very active in intelligence activities directed against us” including keeping a watchful eye inside Australian Chinese communities and effectively controlling some Chinese language media in Australia.
So, how should Australia react to all this? I am not arguing here that we should reject out of hand participation in the BRI, but I am suggesting that we need to be sceptical about China’s motives and to proceed with great caution until we gain a better understanding of its geostrategic implications. It is not correct to assert—as some influential politicians in Canberra do—that the Chinese are businessmen, just like us. And that applies especially to any consideration of encouraging China to participate in the northern Australia infrastructure initiative, which is a region of great strategic significance to us and our defence policy.
Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategy at the strategic and defence studies centre at the Australian National University.