Reviewed by David Skidmore, Professor of Political Science, Drake University, USA.
Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order. London: Hurst. 228 pages. Hardcover, $24.14. ISBN 978-1-78738-002-8 (cloth). Maçães, Bruno. 2019.
Bruno Maçães’ Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order offers a 30,000 foot view of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with particular focus on the ways that the BRI illuminates China’s broader grand strategy. While this approach provides interesting insights into Chinese thinking about that country’s rise and its relationship with the existing international order, it underestimates the messy, improvisational and at times incoherent nature of a project as vast and complex as the BRI.
A former Portuguese diplomat, Maçães is a hedge fund adviser and non-resident fellow with the Hudson Institute. His first book, titled The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order (2018) examined the growing integration of Europe and Asia, based upon his extensive travels across the regions.
The current book begins with an overview of the origins, purpose and scope of the Belt and Road Initiative. Maçães describes the BRI as China’s “plan to build a new world order replacing the US-led international system (5).” Much of the book elucidates the grand strategic purposes of the BRI through the prisms of philosophy, geoeconomics and geopolitics.
Maçães views China’s current foreign policy as rooted in its imperial past. China seeks to restore a modernized version of the imperial tributary system. This is captured by the Chinese principle of Tianxia (27) – All-Under-Heaven – which places China as the center of “a complex network of ties between countries” (192) built upon deep interdependence, mutual obligation and “shared destiny (26).”
This China-centered order, while hierarchical, would emphasize “win-win” cooperation. State-to-state relations would be ordered, not by formal rules and institutions, but by the willingness of dependent states to adapt themselves to the informal influence and beneficent leadership radiating from Beijing. Like China’s past imperial order, the BRI “is deliberately intended to be informal, unstructured and opaque (35).”
According to Maçães, this underlying philosophical orientation to global order is incompatible with existing Western conceptions. Having successfully resisted Western efforts to assimilate China to liberal democratic norms, China is now confidently “waging an ideological war” on the world stage (180). The BRI is thus much more than a global infrastructure project. It serves as a concrete manifestation of China’s broader philosophical challenge to the Western-designed international system.
While Chinese leaders have clearly begun to infuse concepts from China’s philosophical and historical experience into the rhetorical landscape surrounding the BRI, it remains unclear the extent to which these ideas actually drive strategic thought or policy decisions. Nor is Chinese thinking about international affairs free of contradiction. For instance, while Maçães contends that a foreign policy built upon Tianxia rejects Western respect for “the autonomy of individual units” (i.e., states) (27), Chinese leaders are among the most vocal defenders of the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs.
Moreover, the philosophical divide Maçães describes is too sharply drawn. Western theories of international relations include ideas, such as interdependence, spheres of influence and soft power, that overlap with the Chinese concepts discussed by Maçães. The recognition that great powers seek to encourage lesser powers to emulate their own political, economic and cultural models is not uniquely Chinese.
Although the BRI is structured as an informal hub-and-spokes system, China remains an active participant in many formal, legalistic, multilateral institutions. Indeed, two new international financial institutions initiated by China – the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – borrow heavily from the structures, standards and policies of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. All in all, Maçães’ notion that the BRI represents the leading edge of a Chinese campaign of ideological warfare to undermine and replace the existing international order is overblown.
A second major theme of the book focuses on the geoeconomics of the BRI. Maçães argues that the BRI provides a solution to the “middle-income trap” facing China. As wages rise within China, labor-intensive industries are moving to lower-income countries. Yet China still lacks the technological prowess or productivity levels needed to compete directly with rich countries in higher-value added industries (75-76).
The solutions are two-fold: massively invest in upgrading China’s skilled workforce and technological capacities while simultaneously “organizing and leading an increasing share of global supply chains, reserving for itself the most valuable segments of production and creating strong links of collaboration and infrastructure with other countries, whose main role in the system will be to occupy lower value segments (30).”
Maçães argues that this strategy is based upon the growing reality that “the units facing each other in the global market are no longer nations but value chains (80).” He cites a Chinese official’s remark that BRI serves as the first example of a “transnational” industrial policy (81). Chinese investment restructures other economies to complement the needs of China’s own economy.
This argument captures an important component of the rationale for the BRI. Yet Maçães downplays much evidence that China lacks the centralized, purposeful and strategic control that would be necessary to realize such feats of planning and coordination.
As Lee Jones and Jinghan Zeng (2019), have documented, the BRI is much more bottom-up than centrally directed. The impetus for the BRI came not from top officials in Beijing but from a coalition of large state-owned enterprises (SEOs) and provincial officials. For Chinese SEOs, the BRI, as well as the “going out” strategy that preceded it by more than a decade, promised solutions to problems in the home market, such as overcapacity, shortages of raw materials and declining profits as a result of rising wages.
Six years after BRI was unveiled, there remains no single bureaucratic actor with authority over the project as a whole. Rather, BRI provides what Jones and Zeng call a “policy envelope” (749-50) into which all sorts of actors insert their favored projects for funding and official blessing. On the ground, the result has been chaotic, with stories of corruption, unsustainable debt, shoddy construction, non-transparent and one-sided contracts sullying the initially positive images associated with the BRI.
As for the geopolitics of the BRI, Maçães argues that China seeks to place itself at the center of an integrated “Eurasia (45).” This evokes the ideas of Halford Mackinder (1904), father of modern geopolitics, whose writings, while not cited in the present volume, featured prominently in Maçães earlier book. Mackinder referred to Eurasia as the “world island,” control of which was essential to global dominance. Maçães views China as the latest contender for supremacy in Eurasia, with the BRI extending tentacles of influence across both Mackinder’s Heartland (the “Belt” extending through Central Asia and Eastern Europe) and the Rimlands (the maritime “Road” tracing the coastal edges of Eurasia). The main obstacles to this ambition, according to Maçães, are the off-shore and Rimland powers of the United States, Japan and India, with the latter serving a critical swing role as its refusal to join the BRI greatly complicates the underling strategic and geographic coherence of the project.
Yet unlike previous aspirants for control over the world island, China has thus far shown neither the appetite nor the ability to deploy military power for such a purpose. Even gaining naval and air supremacy in the waters off its own shoreline remains a challenge for Beijing. And without hard power to buttress the relationships of political and economic dependence created through the BRI, any Chinese ambition to gain dominance in Eurasia will remain unfulfilled. Indeed, the BRI is less about fantasies of geopolitical primacy than an attempt to ensure against China’s isolation in a world still largely structured by America and its allies.
Maçães concludes by outlining four future scenarios representing varying degrees of convergence and divergence in relations between China and the West (185-86). His own perspective tilts in the direction of growing divergence and conflict. While such an outcome is certainly possible, it is not one hard-baked into the Belt and Road Initiative itself. Although Maçães’ analysis of the BRI’s place in Chinese grand strategy is more restrained than the overwrought warnings issued from many pundits and politicians of late, he nonetheless exaggerates both the incompatibilities between the BRI and the present international order and the strategic and material capacities of Beijing to threaten the system.
Howard W. French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, New York: Knopf, 2017.
Lee Jones and Jinghan Zeng, “Understanding China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’: Beyond ‘Grand Strategy’ to a State Transformation Analysis,” Third World Quarterly, 2019.
Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order, New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.
Halford John Mackinder, “The Geographic Pivot of History,” The Geographic Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4, April 1904, 421-437.