As the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) approaches its 10th anniversary, it reminds us that the prosperity and peace we currently enjoy are hard-earned.
Against the backdrop of Western nationalist sentiments, China took a bold step a decade ago to shift the economic center toward Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa — something the increasingly spiteful United States refuses to endorse. Seventy-one countries, comprising one-third of the world’s GDP and two-thirds of the world’s population, are committed to this massive project. The Silk Road Economic Belt is an amalgam of six land-based, cross-regional trade routes that aim to create a cohesive economic area. The Maritime Silk Road packs a punch. Among other vast benefits it brings to the participating countries, the sea route shifting logistic chains of the shipping sector has proved to be the most consequential. Multiple shipping routes connecting European ports with Asian ones enjoyed one-third shorter transportation times. That resulted in significant cost savings.
In retrospect, the BRI was a prescient move that yielded abundant economic benefits across the region. Numerous studies have proved that the BRI created income benefits by promoting intra-bloc and extra-bloc interconnections. This was catalyzed particularly by boosting long overdue infrastructure investment in Southeast Asia. A report from the World Pensions Council suggests that Asia alone may need up to $900 billion of infrastructure investments per year to address the infrastructure gap that is sorely needed in developing countries. With the construction of new railways, power grids and real estate, the local people in each participating country look set to benefit from a span of new development. That is mainly to boost connectivity in the region. A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also suggested countries that participated in the BRI created greater income dividends than they would have otherwise. Improving connectivity also yielded additional benefits for extra-bloc countries as BRI-participating countries find trade partnerships easier to establish.
Conflating the BRI with the Iron Curtain, Washington views the BRI suspiciously as China’s plot to tussle for global influence with them. Such a parochial perspective is staggering to the world, not least because the US is well-regarded as a dominant force in promoting globalization and drafting rules on the global stage. A decade ago, Washington was equally adamant about establishing and upholding global trade links. Then-US president Donald Trump’s play on fringe ideas whipped up nationalist sentiments that hijacked the US political system to his avail. Since the inflection point, Americans found their nation steering further away from international norms. Similar grievances then surfaced in Britain and Australia. And no leader has hitherto made proactive attempts to mend the relationship with China. That is a double-edged sword. While those leaders revel in the support of a vociferous minority that appears to be a dominant force, social problems continue to fester within. Inflation of consumable goods and energy prices, issues borne of protracted quantitative easing and unfettered fiscal stimuli amid the COVID-19 pandemic, are battering people’s lives and livelihoods in increasingly visible ways. Solving local issues at hand may prove to be more gainful for those countries and their people.
Most BRI-participating countries … realize the benefits of trade by cutting red tape and standardizing regional trade rules. … There is little doubt that improving trade bolsters the economy and raises the living standard of people
Nevertheless, the leaders of a few Western countries drew on rogue propaganda to smear the BRI as “debt-trap diplomacy” insofar as to vilify China. The move was so base that even academic researchers in the US had to publicly dispute such claims. Deborah Brautigam, an international economics professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Meg Rithmire, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, refuted the allegations of “debt-trap diplomacy” by stating that “Chinese banks are willing to restructure the terms of existing loans and have never actually seized an asset from any country, much less the port of Hambantota” in Sri Lanka. It’s less clear that mainstream Western politicians are willing to take notes from such impartial evidence vis-a-vis a bevy of overbearing fringe extremists. More alarmingly, academics in America who exculpate China in any way are bound to be penalized inordinately. A sweep of chill has been felt across even the best tertiary institutions of America. The gloomy prospect of academic freedom in the US hangs over the world as countries suspect (as they should) the credibility of filtered academic products, however tenable they once were.
Most BRI-participating countries, however, realize the benefits of trade by cutting red tape and standardizing regional trade rules. The formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are a case in point. There is little doubt that improving trade bolsters the economy and raises the living standard of people. Over the last decade, American politicians aggressively defined their country as “America First”. Instigating trade wars and sanctioning countries on a whim look unlikely to abate if not cease. This sets the US further apart from the rest of the world just when global cooperation is direly needed.
Locked in a Mexican standoff, one side needs to offer a fig leaf. That even acclaimed centrist tabloids and Silicon Valley bayed louder for militarization to rein in China has dashed the hopes for a less-polarized world. But though China was ceaselessly browbeaten by the US, it has extended a hand in goodwill to America. Alas, as the US-China relationship turns sourer by the day, the odds of American politicians shaking off fringe politics and embracing global cooperation seem less conceivable. What little space is left for diplomatic maneuvering is closing faster still.
China dreamed up the BRI 10 years ago to bring the world closer together. Facilitating trade across countries remains highly relevant today, if not more so after the US balked at globalization. Other countries may bemoan America’s walking away from the ecosystem that once made it great. Yet the world is likely to lose more if leaders choose to indiscriminately give up on offshoring. If history is of any guide, we need not reinvent the wheel — global trade links must once again be forged, not dismantled.
The author is a member of China Retold and a licensed medical doctor who holds a Master of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University. He is also a member of the New People’s Party.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.