Resolution to America and China’s tit-for-tat trade war seems improbable for now. Last month the disputes continued when China retaliated against President Donald Trump’s announcement of tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese goods. While the two countries have launched economic salvos against each other since July 2018, China has reduced tariffs for other countries, potentially giving foreign businesses greater access and creating new trading relationships that may endure. The trade war has reshaped global trade, perhaps permanently, and competition between rival economic domains with separate supply chains has emerged in a potential new cold war. This conflict could become much more complex than the US-USSR Cold War, which was essentially a military and political rivalry. European countries and possibly Russia may become geopolitical balancers or battlegrounds between American- or Sino-led orders, as the ongoing fight over Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei demonstrates. Even if a Democrat becomes president in January 2021, disputes with China may continue in some fashion because complaints against the communist regime have been so widespread.
Belt and Road—also referred to as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), One Belt One Road (OBOR), or the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road—will be on the front line of this new geopolitical competition. Officially unveiled in 2013 (though some programs date to the early 2000s), Belt and Road is China’s primary tool to shape a new global order through an economic system that links Eurasia and beyond with China at its center. But as Bruno Maçães explains in Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, this initiative is more than trains crisscrossing Eurasia that will prevent the US Navy from starving China with a blockade, ports the People’s Liberation Army Navy may someday use for power projection, new communication infrastructure using Chinese-designed and made products, deals that give the communists big data for analysis and research, or industrial parks and economic corridors that expand China’s economic footprint. Belt and Road (Maçães drops “Initiative” from the name) is “the Chinese plan to build a new world order replacing the US-led international system.”
Maçães interacted with China’s Belt and Road while serving as Portugal’s Europe minister and is currently a nonresident research fellow with the Hudson Institute while living in China. He draws on these experiences to helpfully explain the Chinese worldview and rationale for a Western audience. Economically, China needs something like Belt and Road to avoid falling into the middle-income trap—or the situation when developing countries can no longer grow economically by moving cheap, unskilled labor into factories or fail to develop new industries that require greater skills and earn higher returns. For instance, instead of relying on free markets to develop new supply and value chains, through Belt and Road the Chinese government leans on its state capitalist model to force businesses to build and finance relatively low-tech operations oversea, like mass steel production. Then more specialized, high-tech industries that earn higher returns expand and hire more people in China. Those companies, often under state control, export to countries participating in Belt and Road. Moreover, the regime can force countries participating in Belt and Road to use Chinese firms’ technology or standards, which can require foreign companies to pay royalty fees (instead of China paying royalty fees to Western firms, as they often do now). Belt and Road offers numerous other examples of how China uses the initiative to boost its long-term economic prospects, whether by helping its shipbuilders, technology firms, or other industries.
According to Maçães’ logic, the initiative can be successful even if some investments provide subpar returns or countries default, as long as it reshapes the world order and global supply chains in China’s favor. China will likely have significant success by this measure, which should alarm Americans who care about their country’s ability to project power, protect national interests, and remain prosperous, not to mention those who care about human rights or liberty.
Beyond the economic rationale, Belt and Road explains Tianxia (translated as “All under Heaven”). This Chinese philosophy originated over three thousand years ago, and China is now reformulating it to compete globally with Western ideas and values. Instead of seeing Hobbesian nature or Machiavellian competition, Tianxia emphasizes building a “community of shared destiny” with harmony and mutually beneficial, win-win relationships that override individuals’ wishes and desires. Such a community is inclusive, unlike like Western-led exclusive groups like NATO. While the community becomes more important than the individual, disputes are settled through honest, truth-seeking, sincere, and amicable dialogue instead of power politics or confrontation. The resulting system creates a model where states and peoples become interdependent (though, readers could be forgiven for seeing how interdependence between unequal powers turns into subjugation). While states may retain legal and political independence, they lose their practical sovereignty and power. Informal and opaque institutions make important economic and political decisions so that the public cannot see and thus cannot protest, disrupting the harmony. The individual person or the individual state becomes a secondary concern as the world gains importance. Chinese officials insist a world order built on Tianxia could resolve problems like climate change and terrorism better than the Western-led liberal order.
Of course, other governments like the Russian Federation also reject the idea that Western values are universal, but the critique usually suggests universal values don’t exist or values are particular to a certain people or culture. Maçães demonstrates how Chinese Tianxia, in contrast, is a universal philosophical system that not only guides Belt and Road but will compete globally with liberalism.
Belt and Road helpfully explains the initiative’s economic rationale and philosophical foundation and forecasts how other countries in Asia and elsewhere will respond and resist. But Maçães doesn’t fully address how the Chinese themselves may resist, or whether they will tolerate the program’s wasteful spending or opacity that hides corruption. He briefly mentions Chinese protests from Sun Wenguang and Xu Zhangrun, but after only two paragraphs on the topic he moves on to the Belt and Road’s inclusion in the Communist Party’s constitution, implying this solved the problem of domestic discontent. Maçães seems to assume the Chinese will meekly accept Belt and Road’s opaqueness and Chinese oppression forevermore in the name of harmony and economic growth.
But in the same way various other Indo-Pacific countries have resisted Belt and Road and Chinese ideology, could significant resistance emerge amongst disenchanted Chinese and threaten the endeavor or force significant changes? Would they accept high-speed rail and 6 percent annual economic growth if it costs them their souls (or means their children are sent to orphanages and prison-schools because they belong to a minority religion)? Even if communist officials say yes, the ongoing Hong Kong protests illuminate how people resist if they have sufficient agency.
The answers likely hinge on how much agency the Chinese will have vis-à-vis the communist regime over the coming decades. According to one reading of history, liberal values and democratic institutions did not develop simply because Western rulers thought such gestures would be nice. Through increased wealth, new technology, and other factors, the masses gained relatively more power and could threaten the status quo. Meanwhile, elites wanted to ensure their heads remained firmly attached to their torsos. So the ruling class either gave or were forced to give the masses concessions, such as rights and privileges, to limit grievances and prevent civil conflict. China will probably not convergence with liberal values akin to what Americans or Europeans have (Westerners don’t even agree on what values are important or what they mean), and most Chinese may only want subtle changes while broadly accepting the government’s ideology and policies. The communist regime might also have enough power to extinguish any opposition for decades, whether through violence, propaganda, or other tactics. But if a mass of Chinese individuals gains enough agency, the regime will have to somehow mollify their grievances, modify programs such as some in Belt and Road that could enable corruption, or violently preserve the status quo.
Observes could easily conclude that, yes, in the long run tyrannies may fail, but in the long run we are all dead, to borrow a phrase from the dismal science. This reasonable observation should convince Americans to prepare for long-lasting geopolitical competition with the communist regime. But they should also remember the Soviet Union’s history. Even in the 1980s, many experts concluded the USSR would endure and the US could not win the Cold War. They failed to conceive how the Soviets might effectively resist tyranny. While there are differences between the Soviet Union and China, observers today must not ignore lessons from Soviet history and should consider how the Chinese may force their government to change policies.
Therefore, more analysis of how domestic resistance to Belt and Road could affect or change the initiative would have been an interesting addition to the book.
Overall, Maçães’ Belt and Road helps readers better understand China’s crucial geopolitical tool. As the trade war continues and China builds a new economic and global order, this book puts China’s policies into both their economic and philosophical contexts, which most Americans simply don’t understand. In the Wall Street Journal, Providence contributing editor Walter Russell Mead warns that the US should deepen its “understanding of how Beijing’s policy makers see themselves and the world,” but “we do not know either China or ourselves as well as we should.” If so, Maçães’ work could become essential and beneficial reading for people who want to understand China’s global ambitions.