accessed March 11, 2019
Dominating Eurasiafrica without War:
Beijing’s Grand Strategy behind Its Belt Road Initiative
February 23, 2019
(A debate on the BRI: China’s debt-trap diplomacy or win-win cooperation? LSESU China Development Forum 2019
Embracing New Dynamics)
From 1949 to 1979, China waged six wars across its borders. From 1979 to 2019, the number of wars it waged beyond its borders is zero.
During the first 30 years, as China was poor, backward and struggling, it was prone to war-fighting. In the following 40 years, as China began to rise, it has become war-aversive.
“War is an instrument of ill-omen, use it only when left with no choice.” So said Laozi, a Chinese sage in the sixth century before Christ. As China gradually becomes prosperous, war as a foreign policy option falls to the last priority.
In strong contrast to the West, Sun Zi -- the most influential Chinese strategist over more than two thousand years -- said, “ Winning without fighting is the optimal strategy.” In other words, in war or any form of contest, violence is best to be avoided. The underlying spirit is to seek the approach that encounters the least resistance. As a result, to achieve victory with minimum casualties and bloodshed is the most desirable.
Whereas, Karl von Clausewitz, the equivalent of Sunzi in the West, said “War is violence pushed to its utmost bounds.” In other words, in war, violence is maximized and unavoidable. Crushing the enemy with overwhelming force is the best, regardless of casualties and bloodshed.
Deeply rooted in Chinese strategic tradition, Beijing’s grand strategy in the 21st century is “dominating Europe, Asia and Africa or Eurasiafrica without war”.
With what then？
With extra-military instruments such as economy, diplomacy, and culture on the front, but supported by China’s rapidly advancing military capabilities as the backbone. The idea, seemingly self-contradictory, is reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt’s adage, “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.”
“Extra-military” differs from “non-military” in that it transcends, but not excludes, the military.
The purpose is to minimize resistance for Beijing to expand its geopolitical influence.
The decision for Beijing to go west first – over the World Island and Africa, --instead of east -– over the Pacific, -- also reflects choosing the route of the least resistance to avoid immediate confrontation with the U.S. and Japan.
In this context, Beijing’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) visibly manifests its unsaid grand strategy.
There is no denying that the BRI has encountered resistance. In Southeast Asia, by late 2018, China had only 12 large investment projects left, down from 33 a year earlier. In Malaysia, for example, the re-elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has recently canceled the “East Coast Rail Link” project with China for fear of sinking into bankruptcy by incurring heavy debt.
However, in Europe and the Middle East, increasing number of harbors, airports, railway stations are now run and even owned by China in countries far from bordering on bankruptcy.
Israel’s largest international seaport Haifa as well as its second largest, Ashdod, will be owned by China for 25 years starting in 2021 as a result of China’s work on port expansions for Haifa and Ashdod that started in 2015. Israel’s average GDP growth over the last five years was more than three percent (3.52%) higher than that of the U.S. at slightly over two percent (2.12%).
It would be quite contrived to term the case above a debt-trap deal. A win-win cooperation looks more like it.
Greece was bankrupt in 2008. Its GDP grew at minus 9.1% in 2011. China arrived in 2008 with some $9 billion investment on infrastructure constructions. In 2014, Greek GDP grew 0.7%, first time above zero in six years. In 2005, Athens let China manage its largest seaport Piraeus. In 2016, China’s seafaring company COSCO bought Piraeus for 35 years. In 2017, Greece’s GDP grew positively at 1.4% up from minus 0.2% in 2016. And on 26 August 2017, Piraeus was rated by New York Times the busiest seaport in Europe. From 2010 to 2018, Piraeus shot up the rankings of the world’s busiest container port from the 93rd to 38th.
Is Greece a victim of China’s debt-trap diplomacy? Hardly.
In 2017, COSCO bought Zeebrugge port, the second largest in the Netherlands. In the same year, COSCO bought Valencia port, the largest in Spain.
Are the Netherlands and Spain yet other victims of China’s debt-trap diplomacy? Apparently not.
As China applies the BRI to the developed countries, the outcomes resemble more win-win cooperation than debt-trap diplomacy. On the other hand, as China’s BRI applied to the developing world, sad cases resembling debt-trap diplomacy have occurred.
Are the problematic cases the intended consequences of Beijing’s strategic design or the outcomes of Beijing’s shortsighted conception and faulty implementations? An unequivocal judgement one way or the other is difficult to reach without peeping into the black box of Zhongnanhai’s decision-making apparatus which obviously is infeasible.
If the BRI is Beijing’s conceived route to realize its “China Dream”, win-win cooperation rather than debt-trap diplomacy is the pragmatic policy option to pursue. It is because win-win cooperation reduces resistance and enhances the chances of success while debt-trap diplomacy only self-obstructs and pushes its China Dream ever further away from realization.