Belt and Road Initiative: A Civilisational Perspective – Part 1

Introduction – Belt and Road 

Behind Belt and Road: China and India are two ancient, continuous civilisations. They survived the onslaughts of invaders through the last millennium and although imperialism ravaged and impoverished them, they ‘stood up’ again in the 1940s. They experimented with imported economic models of Marxism and Fabian socialism respectively for a considerable period, but have emerged as important economic powers in the 21st century, after unleashing the entrepreneurial genius of their people. China got a head start over India as she adopted ‘reform and opening up’ policy in 1978, while India pursued liberalisation only from 1991. In 2018, China is the second largest economy in the world with more than $11 trillion Gross Domestic Product (GDP), far ahead of India at approx. $2.25 trillion. The new wealth provides China with an opportunity, before India catches up, to establish the predominance of her civilisation in Asia. Another divergence between the two countries is that China adopted a totalitarian system of Communist Party-state in 1949 and India became a parliamentary democracy in 1947. As a result, China has been brutally efficient in the implementation of her policies and crisis management, while India takes more time in building a political consensus on any policy or crisis, accommodating diverse points of views.
After 1978, the Chinese grand strategy has been a combination of ancient wisdom, old-style realpolitik and mercantilism and authoritarian capitalism. The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative is a new component of this grand strategy. It was announced by the head of the Chinese Party-state, President Xi Jinping in 2013 and has emerged as the most significant foreign policy project of China till date. It is inspired by the ancient Eurasian trade route called by historians as Silk Road that connected China, India, Persia and Rome and the maritime expeditions of Chinese Admiral Zheng He between 1405 and 1433. Therefore, it has two dimensions: one continental, Silk Road Economic Belt and one maritime, 21st-century Maritime Silk Road. In 2016, OBOR was renamed as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The first summit meeting of Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation was held on 14-15 May 2017, attended by 30 heads of state and government.
Belt and Road Initiative incorporates various existing infrastructure linkage projects of China with other countries and it is not something that is being built from scratch. The Belt consists of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor, New Eurasian Land Bridge, China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor, China-Indochina Peninsula Corridor and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor. China is investing in roads and railways, oil and gas exploration and pipelines and port development, e.g. Gwadar, Pakistan. The Road includes strategic and commercial activities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean as well as Polar Silk Road in partnership with Russia to explore the Arctic Sea. These large projects, requiring hundreds of billions of dollars, are supported by newly created financial institutions like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Silk Road Fund, besides the China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China.

China’s Grand Strategy and Civilisational Ambitions

In the Chinese language, China is called 中国 (Zhōngguó) or the Middle Kingdom. In civilisational terms, it means that China is at the centre of the world, emphasising the superiority of Chinese civilisation and centrality of nationalism to her domestic and foreign policies, despite Marxist doctrines that consider civilisation and nationalism as false consciousness. The ancient Sino-centric order, called 天下 (Tiānxià) or All Under Heaven, divided the world into three parts – the Middle Kingdom, the tributaries and the barbarians (Kissinger 2011). The countries that accepted the superiority of the Chinese order by offering homage and gifts to the Chinese emperor, also called the Son of Heaven, were given the status of tributaries. They received benefits of trade and non-aggression from China. However, the countries antagonistic to the Chinese order were considered serious threats by China and were termed as barbarians. Chinese military strategies have always been oriented towards countering threats from the barbarians (Johnston 1995). The Communist Party-state does not disown this civilisational understanding of international relations (IR).
In the contemporary context, the discourse on hierarchical international order based on civilisation seems politically incorrect. Nevertheless, mainstream IR theory also contains terms such as unipolar moment, hegemonic stability, regional hegemon, great powers and spheres of influence. The only difference is that these terms denote superiority of military- economic hard power, not civilisational soft power, while the Chinese concept of power, measured by Comprehensive National Power (CNP), denotes hard as well as soft power (Pillsbury 2000). The last four decades of China’s economic rise has not been devoid of the civilisational or soft power element. It has been accompanied by the Sinicisation process in Asia, i.e. increase of China’s ability to influence other countries (Katzenstein 2012). Thus, the emergence of China as the predominant power in Asia does not only mean reordering of power structure but also a civilisational transformation from Westernisation to Sinicisation (Katzenstein 2012).
Besides the international dimension, China’s grand strategy also has a domestic dimension, viz. continual economic growth and political stability, ensuring the legitimacy of the Party-state. Unlike democratic systems, in which legitimacy of the government is based on periodic, free and fair elections and peaceful transfer of power, if the government is defeated, the Party-state system in China gets its legitimacy from the awe and reverence of the people. Since ancient times, the Chinese state has stood for certain virtues, viz. truth, benevolence and glory, which legitimise its existence (Shue 2004). But whenever the state has been unable to sustain these virtues, due to natural calamities, foreign aggression or incompetence of the ruling dynasty, there have been rebellions, which have led to end of the dynasty and emergence of new dynasties. Ultimately one of them has succeeded in reuniting China. This concept is called the Mandate of Heaven. ‘The empire long united must divide, long divided must unite; this is how it has always been’ (Romance of the Three Kingdoms).
If we envision a civilisational continuity, we can say that the Communist Party is the latest dynasty to unite and rule China. Parallels can be drawn between the ancient virtues of truth, benevolence and glory and the Communist Party-state’s emphasis on control over information, economic growth and nationalism (Shue 2004). Firstly, like any totalitarian regime, the Communist Party seeks to control the thought process of the citizens by censorship, propaganda and education system. The majority of Chinese people do not have access to information on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre because there is heavy-handed censorship by the Party-state on internet, press, TV, radio and any other means of communication. Even a peaceful religious sect like the Falun Gong was banned in 1999 and its followers persecuted, as any alternative version of truth is not allowed to become too popular. Similarly, other religions are also restricted. Secondly, the Chinese political system has been sustained by her unprecedented economic growth that has brought abundance to the people, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in a few decades. The stability of the Party-state regime depends on its capability to ensure sustainable prosperity through employment opportunities and rise in household incomes. Finally, the Communist Party has to ensure the national glory of China as a great power, independent of any foreign domination and with the ability to influence other countries, especially in the neighbourhood. In the nationalist discourse, the US and Japan are the biggest external threats to China and separatist movements in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang are the internal threats. The Party-state cannot compromise on these threat perceptions due to popular sentiment, indeed has encouraged nationalist public demonstrations against these threats.
Meanwhile, the head of the Party-state President Xi Jinping has concentrated more and more power into his hands after he came to office in 2012-13. Recently, he has been reappointed as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2017 and President of China in 2018. The 1982 Constitution of China has also been amended to remove the two-term limit on the President. He also legitimises his preponderance through truth (anti-corruption campaign), economic growth (above 6% GDP growth per annum) and nationalism (South China Sea). The anti-corruption campaign has been used by Xi to weaken his rivals from all three factions of the Communist Party, viz. Shanghai clique (led by former President Jiang Zemin), Tuanpai or Communist Youth League faction (led by former President Hu Jintao) and princelings (children of Communist Party veterans). Xi Jinping himself is a princeling. Some important persons prosecuted for corruption are Zhou Yongkang (former head of internal security under Jiang Zemin), Ling Jihua (former chief political advisor to Hu Jintao) and Bo Xilai (a popular princeling and former Party secretary of Chongqing). Through his campaign, Xi has tried to legitimise his rule as a custodian of truth and emerged as the paramount leader of China.
Thus, the multifaceted nature of China’s grand strategy can be understood to be a combination of international and domestic dimensions and economic and political considerations.

Multiple dimensions of Belt and Road 

1. International order: Through Belt and Road Initiative, China intends to gain a strategic foothold in all parts of Eurasia and Africa. She has built massive infrastructural assets in many countries. Chinese companies, technicians and workers have a strong presence in these countries, as more and more projects are contracted to China. Some countries, e.g. Sri Lanka in Hambantota port development project, have fallen into a debt trap, unable to repay China on her investments and have had to lease their assets to China. In this way, China is emerging as the predominant economic player in most countries of Eurasia and Africa, replacing the United States, European Union, Japan or India. China is already ahead of others, as a manufacturing hub and exporter, but Belt and Road Initiative will allow her to also become the predominant investor and eventually banker of the world. As China becomes the centre of the world economy, through Sinicisation process, the global narrative can be changed to favour Chinese values. With China replacing others as the leading economy in the region, the narrative on democracy and human rights would be supplanted by that on the superiority of authoritarian capitalism, especially in many small, developing countries. It would be a modern Sino-centric international order.
2. Regional influence: Since ancient times, China has developed policies on her neighbourhood based on the tributary-barbarian dichotomy. Applying the dichotomy in the context of the responses to Belt and Road Initiative, we can understand China’s influence in different regions. In Northeast Asia, despite very close economic engagement, China does not have much leverage due to strong regional powers – Japan and South Korea, her relations with them turn sour from time to time due to territorial disputes or legacy of World War II with the former and North Korea with both. North Korea has assumed a posture of intractability, with her nuclear weapons programme and nuclear and missile testing, which puts China in a difficult situation as they are allies. However, China is taking advantage of the international focus on North Korea, to proceed with Belt and Road Initiative quietly.
In Southeast Asia, there is a clear divide, with Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia quite favourable to Chinese influence, while Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia are quite sceptical of it. There has been a considerable shift in Philippines’ and Myanmar’s relations with China, the former amending misgivings and the latter departing from China’s bandwagon. Thus, it has become difficult for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to have a coherent response to Belt and Road Initiative.
In South Asia, the regional power India is sceptical of Belt and Road Initiative. On the other hand, Pakistan, the hostile neighbour of India and all-weather friend of China, has provided the strategic access of the Persian Gulf and Africa to China through Karakoram Highway and Gwadar Port. Because of this, China can bypass the chokepoint of the Malacca Straits that Indian Navy can blockade in case of hostilities. The Karakoram Highway and the connecting roads to Gwadar (all part of CPEC) pass through PoK, which is a sovereign territory of India, illegally occupied by Pakistan. Hence, there is a clear divergence in the approaches of India and Pakistan towards Belt and Road Initiative. Besides, China is utilising her vast economic power to influence other neighbours of India, like Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, which we are unable to match. However, the civilisational bonds between India and these countries are so strong that it is not possible in the short-term to turn them hostile to our national interest. They also recognise the dangers of the debt trap and Chinese hegemony, if they participate in BRI without cooperation with India. Nevertheless, India should not take the situation for granted, as Chinese influence on them is growing. Among the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, besides Pakistan, only Maldives has adopted a unilateral approach, even abandoning democratic practices to imprison the entire opposition that supports good relations with India. On the other hand, Bhutan has maintained very cordial relations with India, despite a lot of pressure from China, as evident from the cooperation between them in the 2017 Doklam Crisis.
In Central Asia, as Russian power is gradually declining, China is emerging as the preponderant power. The region forms a crucial part of Belt and Road Initiative.
In West Asia, dominated by the US, with Russia playing an important role in support of Iran, China has a low profile. Belt and Road Initiative may help China to improve her position in the region.
In Africa, where the US and the EU are the most powerful actors, China is taking advantage of their agenda of democracy and human rights, to cut deals with authoritarian regimes that fear regime change and export of democracy by the US. China also has to counter the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, an India-Japan collaboration that provides a democratic alternative to Belt and Road Initiative.
3. Economic growth: Economics is the driving force behind Belt and Road Initiative. China has multiple challenges to her economic prosperity, one of the pillars of the legitimacy of the Party-state. There is a serious regional imbalance in China’s growth story. The wealth is concentrated in the Eastern Plains and coastal regions, which are both industrial and agricultural belts of China and ethnically Han Chinese. On the other hand, the Western region, consisting of mountains, plateaus and deserts, is minority-dominated, pastoral economy. Belt and Road Initiative is an opportunity for China to link its Western region to neighbouring countries and provide avenues of employment and income, infrastructure development and national integration in the Western region.
Chinese economic growth rate has been slowing down over the last few years, as the demand for more goods is declining in the global market and foreign manufacturers are shifting their bases to other low-cost countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh. Domestic consumption has not increased fast enough in China and many industries, e.g. cement, steel, automobile and railways, suffer from overproduction. Belt and Road Initiative provides the impetus for growth by providing new markets to Chinese industries, paid for by Chinese investments, also providing business for Chinese banks and institutional investors. Moreover, Chinese managers, engineers and skilled workers go abroad for BRI projects, generating employment and income. Thus, BRI is vital for the next phase of China’s growth story.
4. Political stability: All the strategic and economic advantages derived from Belt and Road Initiative, in the end, strengthen the Communist Party-state in China, especially the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping has emerged as the most powerful leader of China after Mao Zedong, as he shifted the polity from collective leadership system established by Deng Xiaoping to his personal leadership of all national policy institutions. Belt and Road Initiative bolsters his image as a strong leader with international influence and the architect of China’s 21st Century. 
Johnston, Alastair Iain (1995), Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Katzenstein, Peter, ed. (2012), Sinicization and the Rise of China: Civilizational Processes Beyond East and West, New York: Routledge.
Kissinger, Henry (2011), On China, New York: Penguin.
Pillsbury, Michael (2000), China Debates the Future Security Environment, Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press.
Shue, Vivienne (2004), “Legitimacy Crisis in China?” in Peter Hays Gries and Stanley Rosen (eds.), State and Society in 21st Century China: Crisis, Contention and Legitimation, New York: RoutledgeCurzon


  1. Good article that formalizes many of the processes that I foresaw some time ago. That china can only be understood by studying its past and that China is reverting to its old imperial ways. Which is not a bad thing. My only complaint is that the author depends heavily on Western sources with nothing from Chinese sources which is strange for a Sinologist.
    India of course could throw a spanner into the works by smuggling a few thousand AK-47s and RPGs into Western China and create turmoil in China just as China is doing in India via Maoists. And India could also put a ban on Chinese imported goods which would upset economics in China. They could also fund Baluchi separatists to destabilize Pakistan and the area where China is building its Pakistani port. A lot of things India and others could do to destabilize China but they seem unwilling to overtly do so.
    Another point is that the effect of Sinicisation in India could result in departing from “democratic” process which in reality has not been good for India considering the effect of wide spread corruption under democratic governments. And that for India to advance it will to revert to its non-democratic roots and again become a Rajya.
    One more point and that is that China is not a feminist country but a male dominated one. And that by their nature feminist countries die out (see “Sex and Culture” by JD Unwin).
    Will India be able to pull out of the clutches of destructive feminism in time, or is it already too late for India?
    Just some thoughts.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Your desire for Chinese sources would be respected in future articles.

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