One of the sure signs in recent years that people commenting or writing about China might have a clue what they were talking about was the great divide between those from 2015 who referred knowingly to China’s grand `Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and those who remained wedded to the term `One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) which had been used, for a year or so, before then. The former were clearly more up to date than the latter.
Eyck Freymann’s book rather bravely carries the old name (`One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World’. Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2021). As a book clearly written by someone who has worked in depth on the BRI it would be a huge puzzle if they were not aware of the updated title. Freymann is very aware that this question might be raised, and deals with the issue of names right at the start of this interesting new work. His rationale for maintaining the old label is that in many ways it is the more accurate translation of the Chinese `一带一路‘ (yidai yilu). That is fair enough. Nevertheless, it is still a bold, confident move – to basically overrule the current main architects of an idea and decide to deploy one’s own language for it. Is there a hint of American hubris here? (Freymann is American, though currently undertaking his doctoral degree at Oxford).
These questions of why one party names something one way and one another are not ones I would have bothered pondering much about till recently. But the fierce contestation about everything related to China, from the name to use about the current COVID19 virus (which Trump called the `China virus), to whether Chinese investment should in fact be called loans, means that even the basic language one uses to talk about China in English is symptomatic of potential bias and preconceived ideas. Suddenly, one is super-alert to the slightest clues that tell whether a person has some particular axe to grind. In fact, as proof that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, Freymann’s book ends up being a nuanced, and well informed, argument that shows that the BRI (or OBOR, to use his language) is not some grand masterplan being imposed on the Asian region and the wider world by a control-obsessed Beijing. Yes, it has plenty of signs of partial design, and yes, China has been presented with lots of opportunities, many of which it has taken. But in the case studies that Freymann helpfully sets out – Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Greece and Pakistan – he makes the situation he saw while travelling through these places clear enough: governments there have, for different reasons and in different ways, all taken the China chance for investment eagerly, and have all admitted that the majority of mistakes that subsequently occurred were more their fault than because of any dictatorial behaviour from Beijing.
This is an important message to hear. Beijing is frequently associated with flattering levels of power and control. In the beginning of his study, Freymann does seem to hint, a little too easily, that Chinese statecraft today is derived from the tributary model of the past. Was there really a tributary model, uniform and distinctive, across the dynastic periods? If China was complex and multiple over this time, so was its mode of behaviour. There may have been times when particularly dynastic entities in the geography we now call the People’s Republic were economically and politically strong enough to enforce their fiat over smaller bordering entities. Some of these are today part of the sovereign territory of the PRC – think of Tibet, Xinjiang, or even Yunnan. But that tributary trope is clearly not a straightforward one. Today, China is very different, and it is doing something like the Belt and Road simply because of the somewhat unexciting reason that it can. It has the economic resources to do so.
After that, though, Freymann’s analysis is sound. The port of Piraeus in Greece is an excellent example – a place which when run under local management never functioned properly, but which was taken over by the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) state conglomerate in the late 2000s when Athens was heading into a period of brutal economic pain (up to a quarter of people were unemployed as a result of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Eurozone crises which followed it.) Political parties of the left which were fiercely critical of this, once they were elected to power in the mid 2010s immediately started to embrace it. Piraeus has become one of the most successful investments from the PRC in Europe, massively increasing throughput through the port, and creating badly needed jobs. It has also posed tricky political issues, because it is indisputable that Greece, a member of the European Union (EU), has been amongst the most averse to seeing any motions tabled which criticise China by the EU. The author makes this clear by saying that the main costs to the BRI are not so much debt diplomacy and the other mostly economic issues critics have pointed at, but simply political ones. Here, far from setting out to pick political entities apart in the countries in which the Belt and Road has figured most heavily till now, the Chinese government’s volume in terms of potential investment has been more than enough to see people fall apart because of already extant tensions between each other, rather than because of any actively malign behaviour by Beijing.
But Beijing itself has also grown better at understanding the places where it works. In Tanzania, one figure interviewed for this book records how African leaders going to Washington get five minutes of the President’s time – if that. We all remember the very unflattering names that the previous occupant of the White House called some of these countries. But in Beijing, there is a closedown of the city centre, police cars surrounding the visiting dignitary in their limousines, and a general level of flattery which only the Chinese are able to do well these days. That alone was able to overcome some of the wariness of the Tanzanian government in recent years towards embracing large scale Chinese investment.
Freymann nails the key issue towards the end of this book: `US policy has opened up strategic space for China to take on a more active role’ (194). It is an interesting question whether China would have come as far without the Trump withdrawal. Something in addition to this he does not make clear however is that in many ways China itself had little choice about coming up with an idea that answered what it was intending to do with its new geopolitical status. From the middle part of the last decade, these questions of what China wanted swirled around. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, was uncommunicative and created an uneasy silence on this key question. Xi has been more forward, and at least given an answer. Not saying anything would have been far worse. It is hard to think of any idea China under its current political model would have devised that would have managed to appease those who look at its economic success and see nothing but threat and pain heading their way!
This is a good book for those who want to take their bearings on the Belt and Road. It has no heroes or villains, but a good overview of the benefits and downsides of the intiative as it unfolds. The account of Putin’s attitude to the idea is salutary for everyone else. Rhetorically, he has heaped praise on the idea. But in his actions he has done almost everything he can to thwart and stymie associated projects in the central Asian states which are regarded as Russia’s backyard. Perhaps that is the secret to the China policy quandary – say one thing, do another. The only downside with this is the slight issue of honesty – but that particular quality depends on a world where the divide between true and false is clarified by having access to clear facts. That is not the world we live in most of the time currently, nor the one the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is helping to reshape and recreate.