Sep 29, 2020 - World

The risks and rewards from China's imperial dreams

Illustration of king chess piece with star at the head of the piece

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

By undertaking massive infrastructure projects around the world, China under President Xi Jinping is following in the footsteps of previous empires.

Why it matters: Like previous imperial projects in history, Xi's Belt and Road Initiative presents both benefits and risks for China.

In his new book, "The Emperor's New Road: China and the Project of the Century," Jonathan Hillman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that China's BRI isn't reviving the trade routes of the ancient Silk Road, as official Chinese propaganda often claims.

  • Rather, the BRI is retracing the steps of previous infrastructure-building empires, such as the European colonial powers' construction of the Suez Canal, Britain's ocean-spanning telegraph network, or America's transcontinental railroad.
  • Such enormous projects can benefit the country that builds them, but they can also result in a range of unforeseen consequences.

"China, having played the role of the weaker state, is now grappling with the challenges that accompany its rising power and expanding global footprint. ... Despite these imperial echoes, this is not a story about China's domination but its education as a rising power," Hillman writes.

Behind the scenes: Hillman told me he traveled to 16 countries as he researched the book, including Serbia, Russia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti.

The basics: China's BRI was launched in 2013 and is Xi's signature foreign policy initiative. In its first iteration, it was presented as a program to build trains and roads across Central Asia, connecting China's western frontier with Europe. It would also build a series of ports, connecting China's southeastern region with countries throughout Southeast Asia.

  • However, the BRI has grown into a sweeping global program involving trillions of dollars' worth of deals and promised infrastructure projects — built by Chinese state-owned enterprises and with Chinese laborers — across Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
  • And it's far more than just infrastructure. It includes the signing of bilateral agreements between China and countries from the above regions to increase cooperation in defense, science, medicine, research, media and educational exchanges.
  • In other words, the BRI has become Beijing's vision for a China-centric 21st century, where all roads lead back to Beijing.

Such an ambitious project may seem intimidating to the Western countries whose place China seems to be aiming to take, writes Hillman, but it comes with potential risks for China, as well as benefits.

The benefits:

  • Developing countries could come to prefer China as a partner over Western countries and institutions.
  • The BRI can help spread China's political influence and aid it in setting global standards in technology and other fields.
  • It can enrich Chinese companies and help the Chinese government guarantee jobs for its large labor force.

The risks:

  • Infrastructure has a tendency to cost more, take longer to build and be more difficult to maintain than expected.
  • Failed infrastructure projects can actually destroy more value than they create.
  • "China's BRI has become a gravy train without a conductor," writes Hillman. "Its fevered pace has already exceeded China's ability to accurately measure, let alone manage, those activities. Corruption and rent-seeking are thriving in the chaos."

BRI investment in Malaysia is a cautionary tale. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak sought to secure as much Chinese infrastructure investment as he could.

  • But Razak secretly transferred hundreds of millions of dollars from a Malaysian state-owned investment fund to his own private accounts, while using several Chinese-funded projects to try to conceal what was happening — entangling the BRI and the Chinese government in one of the biggest corruption scandals so far this century.

The big picture: Because China's rise to power has occurred decades after the creation of international institutions designed to establish and enforce a set of international behavioral norms, China's behavior on the international stage has been constrained in ways that European powers at the height of their colonial conquests were not, says Hillman.

  • That means Beijing's moves to reshape the world have been incremental and largely confined to its "economic toolkit," rather than a military-led endeavor

Go deeper: A China-centric 21st century

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