Today I want to discuss a podcast on the One Belt One Read initiative (1B1R).
1B1R is China’s signature international policy, made up of hundreds of billions in loans to mostly developing countries in Eurasia to build infrastructure and other projects (for a quick refresher, this piece in The Guardian).
The discussion made two really valuable points that I’ve not heard enough in the mainstream discussion on China:
Is 1B1R just cynical debt diplomacy?
There is a popular narrative in the West that 1B1R is just a vehicle for Chinese debt diplomacy. According to this script, China makes poor countries billions in unaffordable loans to build strategic infrastructure. When the country can’t repay, China uses the debt as leverage for political concessions or to seize control of vital infrastructure.
The prototypical example is the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Seven years after construction began, struggling to make repayments, Sri Lanka leased the port to China for 99 years. Hambantota features as a cautionary tale in every story on 1B1R, and has been referenced by Vice-President Mike Pence.
Instead of accepting this story at face value, the book’s author actually went to Sri Lanka and talked to politicians there. It turns out they like China. The Chinese are good to do business with, move quickly, and are willing to offer loans without the intrusive conditionality that comes with World Bank or IMF loans.
Claims of debt diplomacy have always had a tinge of hysteria. Research last year showed that China often has to accept painful debt write-downs and asset seizures are very rare.
Nor are all criticisms of Chinese investment particularly admirable. Take this piece in The Guardian on Hambantota, which printed the following without comment:
Does 1B1R have a geopolitical dimension? Of course. Is this unusual for a country of China’s size? No. Might developing countries benefit from having two superpowers to play off each other? You bet.
For context, US military bases worldwide:
What does Chinese empire actually mean?
The author also argued we should understand 1B1R as an “attempt to rebrand the Chinese empire so it can compete more effectively with the US.”
But what does Chinese empire mean? Should we just imagine European colonialism with a Chinese flag?
For the author the answer is a firm no. Instead, he argues contemporary Chinese international politics, like 1B1R, is an attempt to recreate itself in its own historical image. This means understanding the Tributary System, how Chinese foreign relations were organised for the two millennia prior to the 19th century.
Its an argument similar to the one made by David Kang in his landmark work:
Its an intriguing line of argument, one that privileges China’s historical experience and argues that international relations is not governed by the set of ‘universal’ laws scholars have derived from the experience of early-modern Europe and Ancient Greece.
Its difficult not to approach it with some sympathy given China’s track record for upsetting economic and political conventions.