If the recent past is any indication of the future, reactiveness towards China will continue to be a big driver of international affairs this year. Beijing’s connectivity initiatives and efforts to convey its narrative stirred varying responses from rivals, neighbors, and countries farther afield. Such a dynamic will have far-reaching implications for global economic integration and stability.
Last year, two new plans were launched to counter China’s massive multiyear Belt and Road initiative – the G7’s Build Back Better World last June and the European Union’s Global Gateway last December. They add to a growing list of alternatives, including the United States-Japan-Australia led Blue Dot Network and Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure announced in 2019 and 2015, respectively. While China is not the first to fund and build overseas infrastructure projects, the scale and scope of its activities are unprecedented. Beijing showed that not only is there burgeoning demand to be met but also much to gain diplomatically and strategically from promoting global physical and digital connectivity.
There is no shortage of concerns and criticisms about Chinese construction projects, but they continue to make strides despite the pandemic. In its own neighborhood, China delivered Laos’ first high-speed railway last December, Vietnam’s first rapid urban transit in November, and Cambodia’s new national sports stadium in August. The Laotian railway is turning the landlocked country into a corridor for trade between China and mainland Southeast Asia. It brings the pan-Asian Kunming-Singapore rail link closer to fruition. Cambodia’s stadium, on the other hand, prepares the country to host the 2023 Southeast Asian Games. Last August, the first China-Russia railway bridge across the Amur River to link China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province with the Trans-Siberian railway was also finished. In Africa, Beijing completed the Lagos-Ibadan railway, the continent’s longest double-track standard gauge rail line, which opened in June.
The breadth and depth of China’s connectivity plan covering vast geography and going beyond hard infrastructure to encompass policy coordination, trade facilitation, financial integration, and people-to-people exchanges speak volumes of Beijing’s ambitions. Entering the world’s largest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, early this year and upgrading ASEAN-China relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership last November aligns with the Belt and Road’s concept. The completion of several projects last year amid the difficulties posed by Covid-19 further elevates Beijing’s profile. The challenge for alternatives to the BRI is how fast they can start hitting the ground before further favorable developments, and necessary adjustments make the evolving Belt and Road more appealing in its ninth year.
Renouncing the export of revolution and focusing on economic growth since its reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, China’s incipient forays in articulating its narrative to a global audience marks a crucial turning point. It underpins increasing confidence in the country’s governance model. If China’s infrastructure binge already raised concerns about Beijing’s growing clout among borrower states, the gathering of political parties and leaders from countries the world over further stoked fears that it is openly challenging the longstanding dominance of Western-style liberal democracy. Last July, during the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), 600 political parties from 170 countries took part in a virtual CPC and World Political Parties Summit.
In that cloud assembly, the first to be hosted by China, CPC General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping boldly asserted that “[t]here doesn’t exist a fixed model for the path to modernization” and that “[a]ll efforts of individual countries to independently explore the path to modernization in light of their specific national conditions are worthy of respect.” It is a manifest rebuke of Western expectation and pressure for China to democratize as it develops. The world’s most populous country on track to become the world’s largest economy in the coming years extolled its achievements in attaining its poverty reduction targets under the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda a decade ahead of schedule. Beijing is making a case that development should be the yardstick by which governance should be assessed and that 98.99 million people lifted out of rural poverty in the last eight years alone vindicates its selected track. Moreover, in a bid to distinguish China’s brand of global leadership from that of its fierce rival, Xi contrasted “my own country first” – an unambiguous reference to former President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy - to his country’s “global community with a shared future.” In an increasingly contested and fractured world, such a sales pitch cannot be easily dismissed.
Worried that the success of China’s state capitalism and one-party rule may boost authoritarian regimes elsewhere and engender democratic backsliding, the U.S. under President Joe Biden convened its first Summit for Democracy five months later in December. The two-day meeting brought 100 governments, as well as activists, trade unionists, researchers, experts, and members of civil society and business, to renew their commitment to democracy. President Biden cited “outside pressure from autocrats” that “seek to advance their own power, export and expand their influence around the world, and justify their repressive policies and practices as a more efficient way to address today’s challenges” – a jab at China’s political system - as one of the defining problems confronting democracy today. Expectedly, both rivals did not invite each other to their competing summits.
China’s rise surely elicited mixed responses depending on where one sits. Its mass production muscle brought down the cost of many goods, making them more accessible to more people across national borders. Its expanding influence abroad gave traditionally neglected small states room to maneuver as they play off one donor or partner against another. Its growing military projection unsettled established great powers and neighbors with which it has unresolved disputes. Its ability to communicate its narrative and sway supporters, even if tacitly, feeds into its resolve to fight back Western censure. If attendance in the Beijing Winter Olympics is any measure, the country is undoubtedly holding its own. If Xi gets a third serving in the coming 20th Party Congress later this year, expect many of China’s current initiatives like the Belt and Road and its narrative campaign to get more vigor. Indeed, much to the West’s chagrin, China remains in the driver seat, and responses to its behavior will shape international relations in the year of the water tiger.