China’s Manifestation of “Geo-economics” & BRI | S. Liaqat

147

CHINA, in an unprecedented space of time, has emerged as the second largest economy in the world and is exerting a form of ‘geo-economics’ influence that is transforming the nature of international relations in the 21st century. Through this remarkable achievement, China has enticed so much attention in the world and international actors are curious about what Chinese leadership intends to do with its growing power and economic leverage.

China’s Belt & Road Initiative is one of the key manifestations of China’s goal to re-establish the fabled ‘Silk Route’ which historically had an important expression in China’s long-standing economic significance in Asia. In the context of long-run economic restructuring, an expanding material geo-economics influence, and the development of a more self-confident and externally oriented policy agenda, it is no coincidence that China’s leaders, especially Xi Jinping, have been talking about this possibility which potentially incorporates direct and indirect sources of influence.

BRI is a transcontinental long-term policy and investment program and a global initiative aimed at infrastructure development and acceleration of the economic integration of countries along the historic Silk Road with prime focus on Asia, Eastern Europe, Eastern Africa and the Middle East – a region of great significance in terms of emerging markets. The Belt & Road Initiative was unveiled by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 and was initially known as One Belt One Road till 2016. According to the official data, as of March 2022,146 countries and 32 international organizations have taken part in the Initiative through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), representing more than a third of the world`s GDP and two-thirds of the world`s population altogether.

BRI was officially launched to achieve five major goals including policy coordination, infrastructure, trade, financial integration and people-to-people cooperation. China, via the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, is developing an inclusive, mutually open, balanced and valuable economic cooperation framework aimed at regional integration and connectivity. In the early years of the BRI, eight whimsical trade routes were central to Beijing’s ambitions of trade connectivity: six land-based economic corridors encompassing the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and two maritime trade routes containing the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”. The Chinese government departments: National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) laid the action plans for these trade routes of BRI in 2015, in the “Vision and Actions” agenda.

The two principal aspects of the BRI constitute the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) and the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (MSR).  MSR is designed primarily to effectively link and integrate the maritime states of Southeast and South Asia in particular whereas, SREB, on the contrary, intends to re-establish and modernize traditional overland connections with Central and South Asia, connecting them to both China itself and ultimately to Europe. BRI combines new and old projects, covers an extensive geographic scope and includes efforts to strengthen hard and soft infrastructure, and cultural ties. It envisages an integrated network of ports, railways and roads, a development that will help consolidate China’s place at the centre of economic activity across much of Asia and Europe.

The initial stimulus for BRI was provided by the economic downturn in the face of the Global Financial crisis of 2008 in the West that provided China with a huge opportunity to come to the front and play a leading role in global economic development by bringing more countries into its economic orbit. Therefore, since BRI’s launch in 2013, it has been serving Beijing’s geopolitical and geo-economics objectives by expanding China’s influence around the globe. In its early years, Beijing sought to simply strengthen its ties with the governments abroad and gain a foothold as one of their key economic partners using the strategy of offering loans, investment and summitry while avoiding confrontation with the US. Thus, China engaged diplomatically with the countries where the US was less-invested politically such as countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa and the economic corridors situated at the heart of BRI mainly traverse these regions. The economic corridor of Pakistan serves as the best example, signifying this approach of Beijing.

CPEC, the principal BRI in Pakistan, a mega project worth billions of dollars is not only an economic corridor or transit route for the Chinese market but includes infrastructure and energy projects, construction of modern transportation networks, industrialization and the improvement of Gwadar Port which is the most operational port regarding oil and gas shipping lanes. Moreover, there is a range of proposed special economic zones that runs about 2700 km along the route from Kashgar, China’s westernmost city, through central Pakistan to Gwadar port on Pakistan’s southwest coast, with these projects mainly focused on boosting the economic performance of Pakistan making the country a regional economic hub.

Rationally speaking, BRI has the full potential to achieve considerable economic and political gains for China and many of them have been explicitly acknowledged in China’s official policy communiqué, for example, the expansion of China’s export markets, the reduction of trade frictions such as tariffs and transportation costs and the promotion of the Renminbi (RMB) as an international currency. China’s growing economic stature has enabled it to transit from a grand strategy that merely sought its economic goals to one that benefits it to leverage its growing economic power in achieving unreachable foreign policy goals.

China’s economic rise has also given China’s leaders generally, and Xi, in particular, much greater potential agency. Chinese leaders are keen to use it to restore their former dominant status at the forefront of international diplomacy and great power politics and especially in its region which is widely supported by both the leadership of the PRC and by the population more generally. It cannot be denied that China’s enhanced geo-economic influence and rising power are giving it an upper hand to pursue these ambitions much more rapidly which were  hardly possible a decade or so ago.

Though the predictable implications and consequences of BRI cannot be fully judged, its possible trajectory is already becoming clear. China has both the state capacity and the practical experience in making such a project a reality. It has both the material resource and the key agencies, such as the National Development and Reform Commission (NRDC) that have developed detailed plans for the successful implementation of specific aspects of the BRI. It is therefore important to emphasize that despite the shift to a more market-oriented economy, Beijing and its developmental agencies continue to play a major role in the overall coordination of economic development while projecting soft power in the form of geo-economics.