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The Belt and Road Initiative and China’s Strategy


This is a transcript of a July 2023 speech delivered by Shi Yinhong, an international relations scholar at Renmin University, and an interview conducted by Xue Li, a researcher at the Institute of World Economy and Politics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Shi argues that due to rising suspicion of China in developing countries and economic resource constraints at home, Beijing must become much more targeted and responsive to the needs of developing countries in initiating and facilitating projects along the BRI. Shi also encourages Beijing and Chinese experts to be careful when making public assessments of the geo-strategic significance of the BRI so as not to raise concerns in potential partner countries.

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In September and October 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward the initiatives of building the Silk Road Economic Belt and creating the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Subsequently, at a symposium on neighborhood diplomacy, President Xi formally merged the two initiatives together to serve as a major strategic guide for China to strengthen its neighborhood diplomacy. The Decision of the CCP Central Committee on Several Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, adopted at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CCP Central Committee, formally put forward the requirement of “promoting the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, and forming a new pattern of comprehensive opening-up.” The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) strategic concept can be said to have been thereby elevated to a national strategy, attracting widespread attention from the international community. Regarding the BRI, President Xi emphasized in August 2018 the need to do a good job of painting a “fine brushstroke painting,” thus indicating more specifically and practically the fundamental path that this undertaking should take.


In the vast amount of discussion on the BRI, there is a need to significantly strengthen one type of discussion which is currently very inadequate, and that concerns the need to act prudently even as we strive for achievement. There is a need to think about the relevant issues with regard to the envisioning and planning of the BRI, as well as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the export of high-speed rail projects, among other things. What they boil down to is a need for mental, political, and strategic prudence.


There must be a deeper recognition of the necessity of full participation of other countries in creation, through fuller international consultations, and they must be truly international collective undertakings, because only then can external resistance to them be mitigated and their real success be won. Where is the key bottleneck now? It is in genuinely achieving a broadening and deepening of the mainly bilateral international consultations and negotiations between China and the countries with which it intends to cooperate, with the goal of co-creation.


In retrospect, the BRI should be understood in greater depth as both a Chinese endeavor and a broad international common endeavor. We should genuinely and seriously explore what the countries along the Belt and Road really need, rather than having what they need defined primarily by China. We must pay full attention to the linkage between China’s contemporary life experiences and those of the countries along the Belt and Road, including development experiences. We cannot take for granted that China’s contemporary path of large-scale infrastructure construction and investment to drive the economy is widely applicable and universally popular, disregarding the complexities and particularities of different countries and societies, or even the tendency to make trade-offs that are the opposite of ours on some occasions. Otherwise, we would be repeating the Western universalism that we ourselves have criticized repeatedly.


Also, up to now, almost all creative ideas about the BRI have come from China. This should not be the case. Some of the major ideas need to be deliberately left to others. We can wait for that, properly mobilizing while we wait, and this will increase the initiative and enthusiasm of other countries for cooperation. It must also be clearly recognized that the relevant strategic planning on China’s side is only part of the required strategic planning, and that there also needs to be joint strategic planning with the cooperating countries. Moreover, the former must be adapted to the latter. Strictly speaking, it is only joint strategic planning with cooperating countries that counts.


China must be careful to say less and do more, as overheated talk will certainly intensify Russia and India’s antipathy, as well as trigger and intensify the suspicions of Central Asian countries, Southeast Asian countries, and small countries in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. For China’s part, the geostrategic significance of the BRI for China should in general only be discussed behind closed doors, and should not be discussed openly with few qualms. Otherwise, it will only “confirm” foreign concerns and suspicions. We must fully recognize the natural sensitivities inherent in the construction of huge infrastructure systems in the territories of the aforementioned countries. These countries, of course, have questions and concerns about their long-term sovereignty, autonomy, and security, as well as the distribution of benefits. It is naturally easy for such construction to raise nationalistic concerns, stirring up nationalistic domestic political disputes and related adverse effects, if China does not do it properly. It is important to seriously study the extent to which the external doubts, concerns, and pursuit of interests are reasonable and unreasonable, and how China should deal with them more appropriately.


Grand projects such as the BRI should not be pushed forward too fast, as “haste makes waste.” We need to eat our food one bite at a time and fight our battles one at a time. Therefore, there have to be phases, with different phase-related depths. We must have a clear understanding of the limits of our knowledge, the limits of our influence, and the limits of our strategic and tactical shrewdness. It is necessary to develop and modify different and specific strategic assumptions, or even strategic plans, by carefully distinguishing or differentiating between specific situations one by one in terms of different problem areas, different regions, and different countries. We must adjust our ambitions, practices, and plans based on realities that have been durably proven over time, accelerating and intensifying in some areas, slowing down and pulling back in others, pending improvement in the underlying conditions, and waiting for the countries cooperated with to weigh and balance their own benefits of participation and risks of participation, and to lean more toward the benefits of participation. To this end, the most important thing is genuine and heartfelt reciprocal co-creation, to the point of co-ownership and co-management. We must respect each other, be courteous to each other, and even edify each other.


The promotion of the BRI and other major foreign economic programs must be viewed from the perspective of China’s overall economic and financial situation. A major requirement arising from this is that, while many of the components must at first be subordinated to non-economic and non-financial purposes, i.e., give priority to serving diplomatic, strategic, or political purposes, and thereby accept negative economic and financial consequences, at least for a time, collectively they must nonetheless generate economic and financial profits. Otherwise, the required Chinese national resources will be unsustainable in the long run. Therefore also, conducting prudent economic and financial assessments, so that projects do not become collectively cost-prohibitive in the medium to long term, is a major necessity, if not a bottom line, in promoting the BRI and other external construction projects. Moreover, since most of them will be located in less developed countries with higher economic risks, this necessity or bottom line needs to be given particular attention in planning and implementation.


There is an obvious contradiction between the heated and complex South China Sea disputes and the promotion of the Maritime Silk Road. Because Vietnam, Myanmar, and India are the three countries with the greatest relative and long-term economic, geopolitical, and geostrategic significance, and because they, especially India, are relatively suspicious of and guarded against China, and because their existing relations with China are relatively poor or very poor, China’s promotion of the Maritime Silk Road has a short- and medium- to long-term fundamental problem, namely, how to minimize their suspicion of and dissatisfaction with China, and, when it comes to the benefits of participation versus the costs or risks of participation, how to make them gradually tilt as much as possible towards the former in their national policy balance. At present, the prominent issues are the South China Sea disputes, China-India territorial disputes, and China-India border tensions, which are exacerbating their suspicions of and dissatisfaction with China. Thus, China is faced with a difficult problem of strategic prioritization: Which comes first, which is easier, and which is more difficult? Is it the Maritime Silk Road, or the South China Sea dispute, or the China-India territorial dispute? A difficult but necessary decision must be made on the correct order of strategic priorities in this regard.


We must also discuss the question of the fundamental internal balance of China’s economic outward expansion. The BRI, the export of high-speed rail mainly to China’s western, southern, and northern peripheries, and the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, plus China’s ambition and practice of further expanding its economic presence in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere: All of these dynamics are accompanied by an unfavorable policy impression, i.e., that many Chinese officials, institutions, scholars, and media overwhelmingly prioritize further opening up to the west of China, or westward, and have given too little thought for, called for, or planned for eastward and northward, that is, for further trade and economic pathways across the Pacific Ocean and the Eurasian hinterland, or for reciprocal openings on a larger scale with the developed world.


China could gain access to energy and minerals from its western and southern peripheries, i.e., countries along the Belt and Road. It could also obtain some money, find outlets outside its borders for some of its excess production capacity, and generate a greater diplomatic impact. However, China already has multiple sources of energy and minerals outside its borders and is generally not short of money, and the benefits of offshore outlets for its excess production capacity are largely temporary and partial, because they may weaken pressure for structural adjustment and reform. In terms of development through long-term upgrading, what China lacks and needs most is advanced technology in the broad sense, which is basically available only from Western Europe, North America, and Japan. China must minimize difficulties as much as possible and further cross the two major spaces of the Pacific Ocean and the Eurasian hinterland. In exchange for expanding rather than narrowing its access to the Chinese market for capital from developed countries, it should seek to increase its direct investment in them, seek to absorb advanced technology in the broad sense, and promote the process of China’s entry into the high end of global trade, global technology, and global operational management, thereby exchanging small for the big, or big for big. To put it simply, in this regard, China should not only look westward, but also eastward and northward in the long run.


In the current situation, the first priority is to correctly respond to the China-U.S. trade and high-technology wars, and to the domestic difficulties associated with reforms in these areas, in order to protect China’s economy and finances from major damage. The obvious direction is to apply “stabilization” to China’s economy and finances, and make that the number one national priority. As a result, relevant strategic fronts, including the North Korea issue, Taiwan, East China Sea and South China Sea operations, the China-U.S. arms rivalry, strategic military collaboration with Russia, and the BRI, have in general been pushed to the back burner as a matter of necessity. With economic and financial stability as the priority, we should respond effectively to the continued escalation of the high-technology war, minimize economic and financial vulnerability, and strive to achieve a reasonable, long-lasting, and more plentiful supply of available national resources. Not only that, for the same reason, the strategic front will be contracted compared to past years. On this front, only the Taiwan issue and the arms competition with the United States have priority over other strategic matters. This new prioritization will thus be a major strategic issue for China.


Since the beginning of 2018, the intensifying changes in the world political economy have begun a dangerous “bifurcation.” On one hand, the U.S. government is increasingly likely to reach separate free trade arrangements with all the other developed countries, as it successfully seeks to build a new system of economic and trade rules with developed countries and their close partners. On the other hand, the serious aggravation of all kinds of fundamental contradictions between China and the United States, coupled with the U.S. government’s “group trade” approach, may leave China with fewer options. That is, it will increasingly be able to engage in foreign trade and economic cooperation only with friendly developing countries, and with the Belt and Road countries in particular. Obviously, prospects for the profitability of such trade and economic cooperation will be quite limited. There will be significant outflows of Chinese capital with little or no return, and the risks associated with very broad, deep, and rapid engagement in the developing world will be significantly elevated, while this engagement will generally not promote the widespread upgrading of our technology. Therefore, China must do its utmost to slow down the bifurcation of the world economy and prevent China’s long-term prospects from suffering historic damage.


Interview transcript:


Xue Li: Why did China launch the BRI?


Shi Yinhong: Up until the end of the 19th National Congress, China’s view of the world was very optimistic, and it felt that if China put forward initiatives and took the lead in many areas, many countries in the world—not only developing countries, but also some developed countries—would follow it. But to what extent, after all, did we understand the countries and governments of, for example, Germany, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, and so on? Not so much, actually. But because we did not realize this, we thought that the problems there were relatively simple, and we couldn’t help but assume that our experience would be applicable there.


Many governments would argue that, if they allow such massive population movements and investments, their elite groups and even political power groups might as well be shown the door. They want China’s money, they talk nice in front of the Chinese, they speak politely, and even deceive us and flatter us. But when they speak to each other, or go talk in Washington or Brussels, one can assume things are likely very different.


In general, over the past few years, China has been very confident and generally optimistic about the situation at home and abroad. This is partly due to an old tendency in Chinese culture to substitute sweeping principles-based generalizations for careful thinking that is sufficiently specific, sufficiently phased, and sufficiently contemporary. President Xi’s reference on August 2018 to painting a meticulous [“fine”] brushstroke painting is the most important directive since the BRI was launched. We didn’t understand this in 2013 and didn’t pay attention to it, but we have since come to understand it, pay attention to it, and even attach great importance to it, because we have had quite a lot of experience, including a lot of lessons.


Xue Li: What is the core meaning of fine brushstroke painting as you understand it?


Shi Yinhong: The core meaning of “fine brushstroke painting” is that you have to observe and analyze carefully, and plan and negotiate specifically, according to the actual situation. You can’t do anything rash. Starting in the past couple of years, the Chinese government has been unwilling to make the big investments it once did in BRI projects. Even where money is invested, for the time being it is mainly for clearing debts and reducing losses from previous investments.


Xue Li: You mentioned that China’s diplomacy should avoid overextension, so can the current emphasis on painting a fine brushstroke painting be interpreted as an attempt to avoid or correct an overextension?


Shi Yinhong: There are many examples of strategic overextension in ancient and modern history. When you start to overextend, you don’t even realize you are doing it, but think that there is a great opportunity. When you have fewer resources available, many things can’t be done, and then you realize that you are overextended. There is a process to overextension, and it takes time to become aware of it. And then you need sufficient time to turn things around. It’s not possible to significantly alleviate or even fix overextension as soon as you realize it.


For about half of the time since the start of the Han Dynasty, the extent and power of our civilization has been something to be very proud of, and we have a very strong memory of it. People remember their own accomplishments well. We tend to be less mindful of our bad experiences when, during those 2,000 years or so, things were not working or were being messed up. There is also the fact that since the Opium War the Chinese were repeatedly bullied and humiliated by the West and Japan, becoming victims.  The above aspects of experience constitute our historical memory, both a memory of great history and a memory of victimization.


Xue Li: What changes have there been in China’s foreign policy since the launch of the BRI?


Shi Yinhong: There are some that can be felt. First, we have devoted more attention, thought, and propaganda to the countries along the Belt and Road, especially the developing countries, without paying sufficient attention to the fact that our relationships with them are far more complex than we once supposed.


Second, the neighborhood situation is increasingly complex and challenging. There are many projects on China’s periphery promoted by the BRI, but it is the results that count. Isn’t carrying out the BRI in the neighborhood helping to improve China’s relationships with its neighbors? It seems it is not that simple. If improving neighborhood diplomacy means betting mainly on the BRI, then it probably won’t succeed, because there are many reasons why the situation in the neighborhood is increasingly complex and challenging. Also, one of China’s basic realities is that the Chinese economy has been slowly losing steam for more than a decade. Revenues have gradually decreased. The external environment is as bad as that of the United States, and the United States has a number of allies and strategic partners following behind it. In this situation, what is most important? Striving for the steady progress of the domestic economy and finances.


Third, in the strategic area, two things have the highest priority: the Taiwan issue and the handling of relations with the United States, possibly including the East China Sea issue. The two priorities will not change, and both require spending a lot of money. These two priorities also cause a backlash, such as the United States and its allies also increasing defense spending and strengthening war preparations, which we need to respond to. Relatively speaking, the BRI ranks lower.


Xue Li: What changes has China’s image undergone since the launch of the BRI?


Shi Yinhong: First, many developing countries are getting Chinese money, and they are very good to our face. But in fact, as far as most of them are concerned, their image of us probably has not improved much, except that China has become richer, and there may also be some contrary effects. Behind its back, some people may say China is stupid.


Second, the image in the minds of the West is seriously damaged, apart from their inferiority and serious prejudices, because this thing is loudly publicized. For example, the communiqués of the G7 Hiroshima summit and the NATO Vilnius summit argued that China is more and more assertively building a global footprint and projecting globally.


What is strategy? Strategy is just doing the accounts, figuring the ratio of costs to benefits and the ratio of capacity to goals, whether the goals are too high, or the capacity can’t keep up, and so on.


Therefore, I personally think it’s imperative to publicize, deepen, and carefully elaborate President Xi’s August 2018 speech on painting a fine brushwork painting. This is the most important instruction on the BRI so far, showing the direction. The meaning of fine brushstroke painting is that we should observe and consider things carefully, plan and implement specifically.


Xue Li: Wasn’t it proposed again in 2021 to have high standards, sustainability, and benefits to people’s lives?


Shi Yinhong: This is very true. It’s been five years since 2018 and based on the instruction to paint a fine brushstroke painting, we can see how much we’ve improved and where we still have big gaps.


Xue Li: What are the next challenges in promoting the BRI?


Shi Yinhong: It has been so many years since the BRI was proposed, and achievements have been made, but they are limited overall. We need to continue to do it according to the instructions of painting a fine brushstroke painting, and high standards, sustainability, and benefits to people’s lives. At the same time, as mentioned earlier, truly broad and thorough improvement and enhancement will require practical and appropriate efforts over a rather long period.


Xue Li: [What are your] overall suggestions for the next steps in building the Belt and Road?


Shi Yinhong: Let’s give ourselves a chance to re-examine, to discuss and plan anew.


First, we should slow down and take stock—spend a few years to take stock one at a time—to see whether they are cost-effective, whether they are durable, and to what extent they advance or interfere with China’s overall mission.


Xue Li: The BRI is an overall strategy, and doing an economic accounting alone certainly won’t do. How do you do an overall accounting, and what model do you use to do the accounting?


Shi Yinhong: First, strategically, is it beneficial? Of course, the scope is very large, and the situation in each place is not quite the same. But we can use the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as an example to assess whether benefits have been gained, though in fact the risks are now getting larger and larger. Pakistan is China’s close ally, but now its relationship with the United States is getting better. This is something to take note of.


Second, diplomatically, which I spoke about just now. At least one thing is certain, if the BRI is taken as the main lever for improving China’s foreign relations in its neighborhood—the diplomatic situation in its neighborhood—it will not be right. Even developing countries that are friendly with us are selective about us. They feel that some of our aspects are good, but not others. If they feel that we do them more harm than good here, they don’t want it.


Third, economically, if the BRI could have achieved, say, 40 percent profit, then in 2018 President Xi would probably not have talked about shifting from freehand brushstroke to fine brushstroke painting. For many developing countries along the Belt and Road, debt problems are very big. Of course, the debt problems were not only caused by China, but China was an important factor exacerbating their debt problems.


Xue Li: How can state-owned enterprises and private enterprises complement each other in Belt and Road construction? In the past decade, overseas promotion of the BRI mainly relied on state-owned enterprises.


Shi Yinhong: This was the case in the past. In the past, the state still had a lot of money. If you were an important state-owned enterprise that had just been established and was critical, the government would give you a lot of subsidies, but now the central government basically doesn’t subsidize state-owned enterprises because, first of all, there is not that much money for subsidies, and second, if you subsidize all the time, there is no way those poorly-run state-owned enterprises can improve.


Xue Li: So can we rely on private enterprises to promote the BRI overseas, and strengthen private enterprises?


Shi Yinhong: Private enterprises are responsible for their own profits and losses, so they are not very willing to go out, unless big private enterprises put in some token amounts of money for their own long-term and stable existence. They all know that they can’t do business at a loss, at least not a big loss, and without profit it is not sustainable.


Xue Li: How can universities and think tanks participate in the BRI?


Shi Yinhong: In order for a think tank to exist in the long run, it needs to conduct research in functional areas, such as financial, strategic, and war research. That’s the only way a think tank can survive for a long time. If a think tank only conducts research for a single project, such as for the BRI or the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system, it is unlikely to be able to sustain itself in the long run.


If a think tank relies only on the BRI, it will inevitably shrink or undergo a major restructuring. Nowadays, if a think tank only relies on the BRI to raise funds, then the private sector will give little or nothing at all, and the state will do likewise.


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Cite This Page

时殷弘 (Shi Yinhong). "The Belt and Road Initiative and China's Strategy [论一带一路与中国战略]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in China Review [中国评论月刊], November 30, 2023

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