In Rejecting the Belt and Road, It’s the West Who are Being Divisive, Not China
Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Having been on top of much of what is happening along the Belt and Road Initiative for the past four years (this website was the first among only a small number of dedicated resources to the subject) what started out almost as a great Chinese outbound investment adventure has turned into an almost daily barrage of anti-Chinese rhetoric about the very nature of China’s intentions, much of it extremely hostile. What began as puzzled questioning of how Western companies could be involved, it rapidly descended into polemics when they realized competition would be from Chinese SOE’s to allegations of corruption, military expansionism, to existential threats over China apparently taking over the world. It seems a logical if rather lame progression: “Where’s the money, there isn’t any for us, so its all bad after all.”
There are of course issues concerning corruption, and concerns about China negotiating to possess assets such as Ports should Governments not be able to repay loans, such as the much touted case of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port. However, the corruption issue isn’t purely a Chinese matter, it takes two to tango in such cases. In Sri Lanka’s corner, a requested hike from the original two percent Chinese interest to six percent. In the case of Malaysia, support for BRI projects with commissions allegedly being paid to the then Prime Minister, now in jail on separate corruption charges. Interestingly, both Sri Lanka and Malaysia are democracies. We get who we vote for.
In any event, while China does now have the lease on Hambantota Port, its infrastructure spend in Sri Lanka (which began before name tags such as “Belt & Road” had even been coined) has resulted in a local economic boom, which I wrote about here. Has China’s involvement in Sri Lanka improved the national infrastructure and raised income? Yes, and it has been for the past six to seven years. I speak from experience, owning property there during that same time. One has to look rather further than dubious financial loans to get to the real impact, and whatever the difficult parts of its relationship with China, Sri Lanka has undoubtedly benefited as a result. But the West doesn’t see it that way, and views China’s ownership of Hambantota port as a potential military threat, and essentially of it raping Sri Lanka’s national reserves for the next 99 years.
Concerning military expansionism, I can’t recall any TV images of Chinese soldiers outside of what China claims to be its territory. That is in direct contrast for example to the United States, which is commonly involved in military adventures, some also of a dubious nature. While China does indeed have a large amount of locked up wealth, it doesn’t have the overly zealous mindset or national strength to see its citizens coming home in body bags. It does have a friend though who does: Russia. In many ways, the Belt & Road was always really about these two countries and their needs. China has the money, Russia the muscle. It’s marketed as a Chinese concept, but Russia is the vital part.
Maybe that is what scares the West?
We could soon be about to find out. In Venezuela, the United States and EU has abandoned all sense of pretense and sided with the recently electorally defeated candidate, Juan Guaido, referring to him as the “People’s President”. This is a result of alleged widespread electoral fraud committed by the current President, Nicolas Maduro, who seemingly won the national elections in May. China and Russia however both have huge economic interests in the country, which is one of the worlds largest oil producing nations, a fact that tells its own story. Maduro is left wing, as are Russia and China. But he was elected President, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated “He is the elected President, removing him under a coup is not democratic.” He has a point.
The United States meanwhile also has a vested interest in Venezuela. It has the oil and gas reserves it also needs, and wants access to the industrial wealth these offer. But the Venezuelan Government won’t let them. Cue isolation, sanctions, and a destroyed economy. China and Russia to the rescue…
I am reminded at the same time as to the manner in which Brexit has been handled, with the EU emphatically making the point they would make it hard for the UK to leave. I understand the reasons why, one can’t have such a Union with members coming and going all the time. But at the same time, Brussels needs to remember there was a democratic vote to depart. It seems that is also being nullified, ignored, with a battle of wills going on over who really gets to call the shots: the people’s will, or individuals who don’t like what the people have said. In the UK, a “no deal” Brexit is highly likely, with the potential for this struggle to continue in the event of an extension.
The United States has called for an alternative President different to the one officially elected. The EU wishes to overturn a popular vote cast by the British to leave. I’m really not quite sure these days where the borders of democracy lie. What is apparent is that both sides are misusing that electoral trust.
China and Russia, themselves not exactly paragons of democratic purity, look on with interest. China has never claimed the Belt & Road to be inclusive and has reached out to many Western nations and been rebuffed, both by the United States and the EU. Yet although there are bumps and given the money aspect the inevitable corruption issues, it has by and large been a success, even if the media suggests not. With Russia on-board though, and with its military honed through conflicts elsewhere – they essentially defeated the United States in the battle for Syria and its oil and gas reserves, with the consequent struggle destroying an entire country in the process, things may get increasingly tough for those sticking to the “Make American Great Again (by using trade and economic sanctions if you don’t do what we say) brigade.
The really interesting scenario is that perhaps the West will come around. Because with China and Russia very much used to dealing with autocratic ideals and the ability to just get things done, there are signs that the United States and EU are starting to develop tendencies along that path as well. In which case, as that seems to be happening anyway, the conflict between the United States and EU on one side, and China and Russia on the other cannot be purely ideological. It must be about something else, and the primary suspect is energy.
The Belt and Road therefore will continue to be attacked and labeled as undesirable, expansionist and as an attempt to inflict autocratic states upon all of us. It can go away at an instance, all this nonsense, as the planet’s East and West share equally a common resource: solar energy. But while the West is heavily indebted to the oil mindset, it is not devoting enough effort to renewable and alternative energy sources. China and Russia, with their growing hi-tech R&D centers, are doing rather more. The Belt and Road’s ultimate legacy among this struggle, literally, for power, may well be who can get a grid powered by the sun online first and benefit their economy, wealth creation and battle global warming and pollution the fastest. Countries politically wedded to oil, such as the United States, look on in horror.
I prefer my politics democratic. But I’d also prefer a world not fraught with arguments over oil reserves dressed up as political battles, and one powered by new technologies. That may sound hippy, and even utopian, but right now I’m with China and Russia on this course, as at least their Belt and Road concept appears more inclusive than the West’s current divisiveness, and neither China or Russia are threatening anyone with economic sanctions as part of their foreign trade policy. If the Belt and Road can keep out of wars, and concentrate, as it has been doing, a hi-tech alternative plan for development with a focus on digital technologies, green energy and so on, that would be an extraordinary legacy to both strive for, and leave for global participation. It’s a policy China (and Russia) would do well to promote.
Silk Road Briefing is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the practice Chairman. The firm has 26 years of China operations with offices throughout China, Asia and Europe. Please refer to our Belt & Road desk or visit our website at www.dezshira.com for further information.