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A Gift to the World

Oct 20, 2023
  • Wang Yiwei

    Jean Monnet Chair Professor, Renmin University of China

For the world to become more interconnected, five major deficits must be addressed:

• The equality deficit. Some countries and regions are only connected through a third country — primarily global or regional hegemonic countries or former colonial powers. For example, the capitals of two bordering African countries may have no direct flights, but must detour to Paris, thus making the trip time-consuming and laborious. Such problems perpetuate the status of many African countries because of dependence and inequality in connectivity.

• The development deficit. Inaccessibility exists at the national, regional and intercontinental levels. But connectivity to power grids and the internet are both central features of the Belt and Road Initiative, informed by China’s own development logic of reform and opening-up, where infrastructure, industrial clusters and industrial parks are developed in sync to foster synergy.

In this sense, in its implementation in Africa the BRI puts a premium on building networks of highways, railways and aviation, along with basic industrialization and infrastructure.  

• The trust deficit. Physical connections can help bring people’s hearts closer. Now that the China Europe freight train serve is operating, linking China, Kazakhstan, Russia and Europe, the interconnection of the Eurasian continent is underway.

• The governance deficit. Neighboring countries cherish the goodwill and want to connect and communicate, but they are often hindered by the underdevelopment of physical infrastructure. In the Han Dynasty, the imperial emissary Zhang Qian traveled westward on a peace mission, plodding over mountain after mountain, all the way what is Uzbekistan today. China and Uzbekistan are now linked by the Kamchik Tunnel, which makes travel between the two countries much more convenient.

• The peace deficit. Palestine is the latest country to join the BRI circle of friends. While it neighbors Israel, its proximity has not brought recognition. The BRI holds the prospect of promoting lasting peace, universal security, shared prosperity, openness and inclusiveness in the Middle East through better connectivity both on land and sea.

It has been a decade since the BRI was born, and it has been addressing these five deficits to bring about better global connectivity, making globalization more inclusive and further unleashing the productivity of the world. 

Then there is the question of how to scale up funding for infrastructure development. Where does the money come from?

One of China’s experiences in it reform and opening-up process — “Before you can get rich, you need to build roads” — appeals to many countries that have joined the initiative. But three questions must be explored:

First, where does the money come from? There are trillions of dollars of liquidity in the global markets, but the shortfall for infrastructure investment is painfully obvious. One of the BRI’s objectives is to create a mechanism to funnel liquidity into sensible infrastructure investment.

Second, how can infrastructure projects become profitable? Take high-speed railroad as a case in point: The Beijing-Tianjin high-speed railway itself operates at a loss, and it consequently attracts no private capital. China mobilized its state-owned enterprises, which also make investments to develop industries along the high-speed railway, building clusters of real estate, tourism and other industries. So infrastructure projects and industrial development go hand in hand— and this brings real benefits to the people.

In an economy that is shaking off abject poverty as it seeks modernization, it is imperative that the government act to foster the market, rather than giving free rein to the market, which would only end up aggravating inequality and the hollowing out of industries. This is also the fundamental reason the BRI is so popular.

It can be explained by analogy: Instead of letting children swim in the sea (the market), the government should first build swimming pools (special economic zones and industrial parks) to train children to swim. Afterward, they will be well equipped to swim in the sea, which is a common way for catch-up economies to achieve modernization.

Third, how can we realize common prosperity and avoid aggravating the wealth gap? China’s experience indicates that it’s not about building isolated highways and railroads but interconnecting the infrastructure on land and sea, as well as through the internet, so as to create a scale effect to establish a unified big market and create common prosperity. If there were no high-speed railways, the souvenirs of the Miao villages in Xiangxi would not have been sold all over the world, and tourists would not have come to the ancient city of Fenghuang.

China has lifted 800 million people out of poverty and realizes common prosperity because of this strategy. If there were no high-speed railways, there would have been no development zones and no tourism and residential compounds along the line. All this calls for a strong government to strategize and strong state-owned enterprises to implement. The vision must be turned into reality through long-term planning and phased implementation informed by local conditions.

The BRI also highlights the global significance of the Chinese path to modernization. This is a valuable contribution to the common prosperity of the world that advances the 2030 sustainable development goals — the UN agenda to make the world a better place.

The BRI has been hailed as the largest international cooperation platform producing the most popular public benefits in the world today. So there is a difference between the parochial definition and the broader definitions of the Belt and Road Initiative. In the narrow sense, BRI refers to the Eurasian Continental Connectivity Cooperation Initiative, which was defined in its founding document — Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road — involving 65 participating countries (including China). In a broader sense, it is an initiative for cooperation to build a new type of international relations, a new type of globalization, a new type of global governance and a platform for a community with shared future for mankind.

In an ironic twist, the United States has put forward its Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment — the PGII — and the European Union has the Global Gateway. These are their own answers to the BRI and set a course of action that seems to validate the BRI. 

China welcomes competition. Healthy competition brings benefits to the world. If developed countries had the advanced technology and ample funding to help the more needy countries to develop sustainably, those needy countries would not have turned to China for help.

This begs a question: Why is China able to offer what those countries need? Does what China offers serve their needs? And what benefit does all this bring to China in return? China, which is known as the world’s factory, is a country with a complete industrial chain, the lowest construction and production costs and the highest efficiency. It has achieved in a short span of decades what it took developed countries hundreds of years to accomplish in industrial development. This speaks volumes about the merits of China’s modernization path.

In addition, China has offered its management expertise — not in a way that simply applies high standards across the board, but an approach grounded in local conditions. As the world’s largest developing country, China has also shared its rich experience in its domestic transformation (a new development concept) and has encouraged other countries to take the path of development in line with their own national conditions.

And so it’s true that the BRI originated with China, but it belongs to the world. If China had not taken the initiative, there would likely be no other pioneer to drive the action. Some countries say yes, while some say no to China’s proposition, so China is seeking to find a third way in which no country takes a dominant position. Rather, every country takes part on its own accord, in a concerted effort to play a harmonious symphony. This is exactly the direction that the BRI is pursuing now.

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