China is fashioning a new form of multilateralism with a strategy for the systematic displacing of institutions built on high ideals and values, such as free markets and democracy, notes Eswar Prasad, a Cornell University professor and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Beijing’s strategy has two main prongs, he writes for The New York Times:
- The first is to change the rules of the game from within, by expanding Chinese influence in existing international institutions….
- The second prong of China’s strategy is to set up its own international institutions. These put a multilateral sheen on projects in which Beijing controls the purse strings and also makes the rules of the game. Initiatives like One Belt, One Road — the plan to invest $1 trillion or more in transcontinental infrastructure — and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which started operation last year, allow Beijing to cloak its influence behind the facade of a large group of countries, all with ostensibly significant roles in running these institutions rather than a position that requires them to follow Beijing’s commands.
Despite China’s official narrative, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not simply an economic development project, nor is it value-free, notes Nadège Rolland, author of China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative.
“Its ultimate purpose is to build a Sinocentric Eurasian order in which Beijing’s influence and power have significantly expanded, authoritarian regimes have been consolidated, and liberal norms have receded. Western governments need to recognize that such an outcome would be contrary to both their interests and their values,” she adds:
After the end of the Cold War, several Western countries, including the United States, tried to promote infrastructure interconnectivity and economic development in the hope that prosperity would transform post-Communist Eurasia into a democratized and stable region. With BRI, China has now assumed the lead in promoting Eurasian integration, using similar arguments about the relationship between connectivity and development, but with very different economic, political, and strategic objectives in view. …. Promoting regional development is seen not as a way to encourage political liberalization but, to the contrary, as a means of strengthening and stabilizing existing authoritarian regimes around China.
Recently, a leaked document on the objective of one aspect of OBOR – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – states that the client nation must be gradually turned into a ‘surveillance state’ where the media is manipulated, democracy undermined and political transition discouraged.
Beijing is now spending at least $7 billion a year, by the estimates of Christopher Walker, a vice-president of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C., on outward propaganda, to “make friends” in the democracies. To encourage cultural exchanges. To engage the news media, to further these ends, The National Post’s Terry Glavin adds.
“Taken together,” Walker reckons, “the forces working against democracy are more powerful than at any time since the end of the Cold War.”
China’s existential challenge
“BRI is an attempt to patch China’s most pressing economic problems without fundamentally altering its development model, a situation French economist Michel Aglietta summarized as ‘the market, as far as possible; the State, as much as necessary.’ BRI will not bring economic liberalization to China: it will, to the contrary, help perpetuate the Chinese system of state control,” Rolland adds. “By committing itself to the realization of BRI, China is following an economic trajectory that ultimately does not converge with the liberal model but instead perpetuates socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
“The projects that the initiative comprises are meant to address nontraditional security threats and to secure China’s periphery in order to counter what Chinese strategic thinkers regard as their country’s greatest existential challenge: U.S. hegemony,” adds Rolland, a Senior Fellow for Political and Security Affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR):
Economic development ultimately helps promote key strategic goals for China by enhancing internal social stability and national unity. Reducing the development gap between coastal and inner provinces is necessary to preserve social stability, especially in the western province of Xinjiang, where the central government, for fear of local “splittist” tendencies, has tightened its control in recent years.