Chinese Panorama: Cracking the code of Belt and Road Initiative through Chinese art, history and philosophy

In Chinese legend and mythology, Nuwa is the goddess who created the mankind. She also repaired the broken pillars of heaven which were damaged by Gong Gong, the God of Water, in his fight with Zhu Rong, the God of Fire. Some social scientists consider that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is coming to repair and stabilize the broken economies of poor Asian and African countries like Nuwa. Whereas many scholars argue that China is fighting like a Gong Gong with USA (Zhu Rong) to claim the throne of heaven (Economic Hegemony). At least this what Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad thinks about China. That is why he cancelled three Chinese-backed multi-billion infrastructure projects and warned against “a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries in terms of just open free trade.”

If we explore the pages of Chinese history, we can connect the dots that how contemporary Chinese political and economic policies are being shaped. There are many stories and incidents in Chinese history which can help us to break the code of Belt and Road Initiative.

The Ming Dynasty was the first Chinese dynasty interested in exploration and trade with the world. The Ming treasure voyages were the seven maritime expeditions by Ming China’s treasure fleet between 1405 and 1433. The Yongle Emperor ordered the construction of the treasure fleet in 1403. The grand project resulted in seven far-reaching ocean voyages to the coastal territories and islands in and around the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and West Africa. Admiral Zheng He was commissioned to command the treasure fleet for the expeditions. The sea routes of these expeditions are used for comparison with the Belt and Road routes, making a claim that China has a history of openness towards possible trade opportunities with anyone in the world. The explorations which were conducted under the Yongle Emperor were ended because they didn’t profit the empire. Also, the fleets were extremely expensive because Ming China’s main threats came from the Mongolians in the North, not from any sea borne threats. A story of giraffe is also mentioned here that the Zheng He brought a giraffe from Africa on his return. The Yongle Emperor of Ming Dynasty had already conducted many wars and military campaigns during his reign and he was sapping away all the money. This was the time when Forbidden City was built. So finally, trade was restricted and a sea ban (Haijin) was imposed. The simple rationale behind  this was that the Chinese expeditionary fleet was heavily militarized and carried great amounts of treasures, which served to project Chinese power and wealth to the known world. Emperor suffered a trade deficit because his imports exceeded the value of his exports. It is also interesting to note that this was the only option available for the Ming Emperors because the Ottomans dominated trade in Eastern Europe in the 1400s-1500s. The Ottomans had the roads and the Mediterranean Sea, but the Ming had the South China or Indian Ocean as an available option. Moreover, Ming China was the world’s most powerful country and there was essentially nothing they needed or wanted from the outside, “barbaric and uncivilized,” world.

Besides starting a trade with the world and then putting it to a halt, there is a moral lesson in this story, at least for China.

According to the World Bank report, China is the world’s largest exporter and the second largest importer as well. Its import market is roughly the size of other BRICS countries, Japan and Turkey combined. China is leading in other economic dimensions such as investments. It is vivid that unlike Ming Emperors, current Chinese leadership is aware of trade deficit. They have much more to offer to the world, but they have expectations from the other countries as well. In 2013, China’s decision to adopt open market strategy is well planned in order to achieve the international consequences of China’s rise. If countries on Belt and Road has nothing to offer but to take from China, China knows very well, how to avoid any trade deficit this time.

Robert J. Samuelson in his article published in Washington Post has analyzed the situation that How US is going to lose its trade war with China. He refers to the Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “The Chinese government . . . [has] audacious plans to dominate emerging technology industries. Many of these targeted sectors, such as artificial intelligence and robotics, have clear implications for defense. China seeks to achieve its goal of economic and military domination in part by acquiring the best American technology and intellectual property.” Robert said, by referring to the Michael Wessel of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional watchdog agency, “Hardly anyone doubts that China is on the hunt for advanced technologies by “legal means if possible, and illegal means, if necessary.”

China has experienced wars with British empire over the trade of opium.  The British East India Company started smuggling opium from India into China through various means and became the leading suppliers by the end of 18thcentury. This opium trade resulted in millions of Chinese addicts and devastated especially the large coastal Chinese cities. Now at this point, Chinese know that they shouldn’t let anyone exchange Giraffe or opium in exchange of their worthy exports. Countries on Belt and Road claim that it is a Win-Win project for them. But at least for China, it is a win-win project even after investing billions of dollars in infrastructure of countries on Belt and Road.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor which is the flagship project of Belt and Road Initiative  will span the length and breadth of Pakistan. It will decrease the distance for China to reach to the Arabian sea through Gwadar Port and it is officially leased to China for 43 years, until 2059. Will it bring any benefit to Pakistan? One can predict, yes but we are not sure if its long-term benefits will be shared by both, Pakistan and China. In Central Asia, critics are openly writing about their concerns that the trains routes planned to be built by China will just go through Central Asia and bring Chinese goods to Europe or will help Central Asian economies as well?

When raised such questions, Chinese side refers to its foreign policy principle of non-interference in other country’s domestic politics and strategy of not indulging themselves into any dispute. The Chinese Communist Party which took over power from feudalism through revolution proudly follows the Marxist ideology. But Karl Marx in “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” clearly referred to “the economic structure of society, as the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” Moreover, throughout the Chinese history, Confucians preferred to avoid conflicts. It was Confucius who considered that “taking legal actions against neighbors is a result of an incapacity to work things out in negotiations.” Bobby K Y Wong in his article “Dispute Resolution by Officials in Traditional Chinese Legal Culture” states that Confucians were not mere theorists. They took it as their mandate to create a Confucian utopia on earth. Whenever possible, they would put theory into practice. In handling disputes brought before them, the concern of Confucian officials was not to decide which party was right or wrong. Rather, the process was, as a means to achieve other more important objectives, given much more attention. The main objective was to keep society in harmony, the central theme of Confucianism and the traditional Chinese culture. Dispute resolution was never as important as dispute prevention. Dispute resolution was often used to teach the disputants the importance of keeping good relationships with others.

In conclusion, we can say that if Chinese foreign policy is following the principle of avoiding disputes in their dealings then it is not something which they have specially designed as a welcoming tactic for Belt and Road countries. But it is the part of Chinese intrinsic legal system which is an integral part of their subconsciousness. In 2013, however, China deployed combat troops for the first time in its history in Mali. Its extensive economic investments have brought about the need to protect its investments and ensure the security and political stability of host countries. It’s still a question that it was Chinese dispute prevention strategy or dispute resolution tactic?

As for as , noninterference in domestic politics is concerned, China needs not to interfere directly into a country’s domestic politics. According to Marxist ideology, economy runs the politics and as a part of Chinese foreign investment strategy, it is working very well.

China was the Middle Kingdom and China’s foreign policy increasingly looks like an effort to win back for itself an imagined position where China was the center of East Asia and other nations largely submitted to its will. “The key for the current Chinese leader is to give itself and Chinese people the sense that China is back in its natural place in the world order, which means as the regional hegemon and at least one of the top few countries in the world.”

History, arts and literature provide a reasonable underlying context for the contemporary events. They help us to understand the underline philosophies and articulations of the events including political and economic policies made by a country. If a country’s policies are not following the ideological footprints of their forefathers, one can observe a deviation and then try to explore the reason behind this deviation. History can be a good source of reference for comparison as well. Chinese economic and foreign policies are a hope for the world. In many markets, China is representing more than 50 percent of global demand. Therefore, China’s policies will impact on the rest of the world and especially on its neighboring countries. Even Africa and Latin America are very hopeful for long term consequences of Belt and Road Initiative. There is a hope that potential effects of this initiative will be positive not only for China but for these countries as well.

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Ammar Younas

Ammar Younas is an ANSO scholar at School of Humanities, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. He is based at Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences. He studied Chinese Law as Chinese Government Scholar at Tsinghua University School of Law in Beijing, China. Ammar also holds degrees in Medicine, Jurisprudence, Finance, Political Marketing, International and Comparative Politics and Human Rights from Kyrgyzstan, Italy, and Lebanon. His research interests include but not limited to Societal Impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Regulation of AI & Emerging Technologies, and Central Asian Law.

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