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China's road to global dominance

Illustration of Chinese President Xi Jinping holding a small globe
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expecting upwards of 40 world leaders to join him in Beijing later this week for the second international gathering on the Belt and Road Initiative — China's plan to build a massive network of ports, roads and railways across some 65 countries.

Why it matters: Belt and Road is just one element of China's plan to supplant the U.S. as the dominant global superpower within the next three decades. By the time Beijing's ambitions were widely understood in Washington, China’s success had already begun to feel inevitable.

Jonathan Ward, author of "China's Vision of Victory," tells me the goal of regaining China's former status as the world's supreme power dates back decades, and Xi has simply "taken off the mask."

  • Xi has also set a target date for China to cement its dominance: 2049, the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
  • Ward says Belt and Road is intended to impose the "coercive force of the Chinese economy to build strategic beachheads" around the world. "In the 19th century we'd understand that as empire building," he says.
  • Meanwhile, “it's full steam ahead on pretty much every human activity, from space to seabed, with the objective of becoming the world’s leader in all of these things."
  • "And with that, you build a foundation of power that is absolutely beyond what can be achieved by any other nation."

Chris Johnson, a former top CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says: “If the Chinese want to go around the world wasting money I’m not so sure we should be trying to stop them.”

  • He says the U.S. should be paying less attention to Belt and Road — a series of pricey bets that might prove unsustainable — and more attention to the race for the technologies of the future: 5G networks, artificial intelligence, quantum computing.
  • “The risk is that we’re busy chasing Belt and Road, concerns over influence building and an ideological death struggle, when this is really where we should be placing our limited resources,” he says.
  • Johnson says U.S. leaders can’t bring a Cold War playbook to a rivalry that is fundamentally different, not least because of China’s integration into the global economy. “We need to be more thoughtful about this rather than just doing what’s comfortable,” he says.
  • He adds that what looks from D.C. like a clear Chinese strategic vision is actually much more complicated. “This is a country of 1.5 billion people, and [Chinese leaders] have inboxes too. So it’s messy.”

Authoritarians will take center stage at this week’s forum (Vladimir Putin is the guest of honor), but many of the world’s liberal democracies will also be well represented.

  • Italy, which controversially became the first G7 country to sign on to Belt and Road last month, is going. Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz will be there. The U.K. is sending a delegation led by Finance Minister Philip Hammond in a move that is likely to rankle allies in Washington.

The bottom line: The U.S. remains the world’s leading economic, military and technological power. But Beijing’s investments, massive market and willingness to work with democrats and dictators alike mean that when Xi calls, much of the world is willing to come.

Go deeper: As China expands Belt and Road in Europe, its promise could diminish