China’s joint venture with Eurasia
Though the Chinese have always traded with the rest of Eurasia along the Silk Road, they started showing an interest in the supercontinent only relatively recently due to their historical isolation.
China’s joint venture with Eurasia

China’s joint venture with Eurasia

Photo: AFP/Wang Zhao
Gergely Salát 20/03/2023 16:00

Though the Chinese have always traded with the rest of Eurasia along the Silk Road, they started showing an interest in the supercontinent only relatively recently due to their historical isolation. The country has already become a global player seeking to reorganize its immediate and wider environment with its Belt and Road Initiative (New Silk Road) to become one of the hubs of the networks it has created. This will be a major opportunity for the countries of Eurasia.

Traditionally, people in China knew little about the existence of Eurasia. They considered their own empire the center of the World beyond which only barbarian or semi-barbarian peoples lived on the periphery. Naturally, they traded with them both by sea and by land but they showed no particular interest in them. They intended neither to explore nor to colonize the world outside China’s natural borders. No change in the traditional way of thinking occurred even in the late 16th century, when they learned from European missionaries that the Earth was spherical meaning that its surface could not have a true central point, and that it was much larger than the Chinese had ever imagined. The idea of China’s central position had originally been civilizational and had not been based on geography, so the adjustment of geographical knowledge had little impact. This was why even in the late 18th century, western envoys from the other end of Eurasia were treated as emissaries of submissive vassals who brought the obligatory tax gifts.

From center to center

The traditional Chinese world view collapsed in the 19th century due to losses to western powers and later to Japan. The Chinese were forced to reconsider their own position in the world and accept that they were not the only civilization. This was a slow and painful process. While the West was modernizing quickly, China, still accounting for almost one third of world GDP in around 1820, was lagging far behind and was faced with the prospect of immediately moving from the central position it had held for thousands of years to the periphery. Everything that has taken place in China in the last 100 to 130 years, whether it be Sun Yat-sen’s revolution, the modernization attempts of the Republican era, Mao Tse-tung’s campaigns or the “reform and opening up” policy announced in 1978, can be interpreted as a manifestation of the efforts to regain the country’s central position. These efforts have finally started to bear fruit in the last few decades.

In the meantime, of course, the Chinese people’s perception of the world has also undergone a profound transformation. As a result of the failures suffered between the mid-19th and the mid-20th century, they started to study the outside world consciously and to use the information they gained pragmatically. They also adopted successful patterns seen elsewhere, taking care to adapt them to the Chinese realities. The traditional view of China as a civilization has been replaced by a more realistic view that China is not the only civilization, but rather one of the several poles of civilization and politics. This comes with an acceptance that China has a non-exclusive yet important role in shaping global processes. After the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the country fell under the Soviet sphere of influence for a while, ridding itself of this dependence about a decade later. Since then it has pursued a fully independent foreign and domestic policy. Initially the required weight was provided by the large population and then the status as a nuclear power, but these factors were accompanied by growing economic power due to the successes of “reform and opening up”. At the start of this program, the Chinese economy accounted for less than 2 percent of world GDP. Today, it accounts for 17 percent and the period of growth is far from over. There is even a good chance of overtaking the United States within a decade or two.

Until the 2000s, China’s position in the global economy was typical of peripheral players. It relied on its large, cheap labor force to provide low-value-added activities for the centers. But the situation has changed in the last decade and a half. China has moved (or moved back rather) towards the center, and in many areas, from e-commerce through artificial intelligence and high-speed railway technology to robotics, it is now at the forefront of the world with quantitative growth replaced by qualitative progress. With that, it has inevitably rearranged the surrounding world, including, of course, its relationships with Eurasia. The last two hundred years or so, when China was in a peripheral position, can only be interpreted as a historical anomaly. But now the country has begun to regain its original position.
Photo: AFP

Go West

The term “reform and opening” still serves as a guiding principle today. The word opening referred to the building of intensive relations with the outside world, which, at that time, represented a radical turnaround in the previously closed country. The program proved to be so successful that it allowed China to become the world’s largest trading nation, one of the top destinations for foreign investment over a number of decades, after which China itself started to invest abroad. The country has obviously become the winner of globalization, but at the same time its exposure to the outside world has increased. Naturally Eurasia now plays a key role in its complex system of foreign relations for several reasons. On the one hand, all of its land neighbors are Eurasian states, and China has developed close — though sometimes ambiguous — relations with most of them. On the other hand, most of its oil and gas imports come from the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. Therefore these areas and the links with them play a key role in China’s energy security. Thirdly, China is the number one trading partner of the European Union. Its exports to the EU are huge but imports are also significant. Fourthly, the majority of China’s trade happens by sea, where US influence is strong. This means that any conflict could cause serious damage to the Chinese economy, so there is a need to build up land-based relations as well. Fifth, the US can prevent China’s eastward advance through Japan and South Korea (where US troops are stationed) so strategically Beijing can only proceed in the other directions. Sixth, China has a centuries-old problem that its western regions are underdeveloped and isolated. This could be eased by developing vibrant links to the West which would also contribute to the development of western China, which would place the region at the center of East-West contact.

Zone and route

The logical consequence of these factors is that China has turned towards Eurasia, as it can facilitate the success of its basic economic, political and security interests by reorganizing the supercontinent. Contacts with Southeast Asia are promoted by the large Chinese minority living there, which has been actively involved in the Chinese economic bloodstream since the beginning of the reforms. As for links with the West, the land strip to Europe is full of countries that are not part of the US sphere of interest and that have development needs that China is best placed to fulfill. It was to hold these natural Eurasian endeavors together that Beijing formulated the greatest development program of all time, the Belt and Road Initiative (also known as the New Silk Road, BRI) concept at the beginning of the 2010s.

The BRI is not a detailed program, but rather a vision of a Eurasia (with Africa connected) linked together by a dense network of highways, railways, sea and air routes; oil, gas, electricity and fiber-optic lines from China to Western Europe in which no legal barriers, customs borders or travel restrictions hinder the free movement of goods, capital and people. China is one of the main hubs of these networks, and it will play a central role through the BRI in the supercontinent, but every participating country will benefit from the development of connections in every direction. The BRI vision has an overland branch connecting the East to the West through Central Asia, Russia and the Middle East by means of building several economic corridors, and a maritime branch connecting Chinese ports to the Mediterranean Sea and Africa through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Official documents describe the five pillars of the BRI as political coordination, physical connectivity, unimpeded trade traffic, financial integration and people-to-people relationships. Therefore, it is not only about implementing physical infrastructure (though these projects are the most spectacular), the program also focuses on breaking down other barriers in addition to physical ones.
Photo: AFP/Tao Ming

No central plan

In reality, the Belt and Road vision is an organic extension of several processes already in progress, as China’s Eurasian expansion had already started before the program was announced. The novelty is that Chinese ambitions have been given a new umbrella brand name, and the initiative has elevated the partly spontaneous processes to the level of a state vision. It is important to stress, however, that this is not an elaborate master plan, but a special kind of constantly changing concept. As this concept influences current Chinese economic interests, the needs and reactions of the participating countries also play a role. The latter is a very important aspect, as the Chinese stressed right from the outset that BRI projects are by their very character based on cooperation. These are not unilateral Chinese initiatives that China intends to implement in other countries’ territories, but rather joint ventures in which the host countries participate by devising, planning and implementing them in accordance with their own needs and possibilities. For this reason, the Belt and Road Initiative is not an aid program, but a framework system within which China provides financing and technology for projects in which the decision-makers believe that China and the participating countries have a common interest. Chinese companies and other actors, such as the BRI countries, can start participating in the program with a project at any time. This shows that the Belt and Road Initiative is not a closed system, as it can be expanded, modified and filled with new content at any time. In fact, it is not even clear what can be considered a BRI project, as China does not keep a list of them. Moreover, no specific targets have been set, no central planning exists, and even the Chinese stakeholders are competing with each other. The idea is that various elements of different character implemented in diverse areas at different times will finally fall into place to create a network that will unite the supercontinent.

Does every road lead to Beijing?

Western analysts often interpret the New Silk Road as a manifestation of China’s geopolitical ambitions. However, China itself denies that there is a geopolitical intention underlying the initiative. The specific projects implemented or launched so far suggest that business aspects and often national political considerations dominate investment decisions, and geopolitical objectives (if any) are secondary especially because of the lack of specific objectives and coordination. If the BRI vision is realized and Eurasia genuinely becomes a supercontinent with a broad and dense network of interconnections, it could transform the long-term geopolitical landscape of the entire continent. At any rate, this will be a process of many decades without precisely planned details whose explicit impacts are unpredictable even for China.

China’s natural ambition as the world’s most populous country, one of the world’s economic, political and military superpowers and one of the world’s oldest civilizations is to reorganize its own environment (both large and small) so that it plays a central role, has a say in formulating regulations and standards, and so other stakeholders take its fundamental interests into consideration. These aspirations primarily constitute opportunities rather than threats for countries that intend to share China’s vision, so the main task of the leaders in those states is to take the opportunities offered by their relationships with China by making good decisions and skillfully pursuing their interests.

The author is a sinologist, translator and associate professor at Pázmány Péter Catholic University and Eötvös Loránd University, and senior researcher at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade.

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022.

We use cookies on our website. If you consent to their use, we use them to measure and analyze the use of the website.
Information and Settings