During the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, one leader made an impassioned plea for globalization, admonishing the audience to “rise to the challenge,” for “history is made by the brave.” Champions of globalization are common at Davos, but this leader was not one of the usual suspects. Instead, it was Xi Jinping, president of the world’s largest autocracy, the People’s Republic of China. Yet as China specialist Nadège Rolland says in her new book, this should come as no surprise. In fact, she notes, globalization and its underpinnings are at the heart of Xi’s vision for a reshaped global order, of which China is to be the center.
Rolland outlines the drivers and possible implications of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi’s plan to link Asia, Europe, and Africa through a vast network of infrastructure projects in an ambitious twenty-first–century reimagining of the ancient Silk Road. Despite the fanfare surrounding BRI’s May 2017 coming-out party in Beijing at the Belt and Road Forum, BRI’s geopolitical implications have been relatively underappreciated within international-security circles: More analysts prefer to study China’s maritime (as opposed to continental) ambitions. Moreover, many Western commentators—surveying vague official statements and clunky, outward-directed propaganda—have dismissed the initiative as impossible to realize. [End Page 170]
Yet to see BRI as merely a wish list of construction projects or China’s latest plan for Eurasian connectivity is to miss the forest for the trees, Rolland suggests. In fact, the plan represents a direct strike at the rules-based system championed by democracies and, ultimately, at the liberal international order. Rolland discerns China’s interpretation of infrastructure (both concrete and digital) as the “physical manifestation of globalization” (p. 39). In doing so, she connects Beijing’s current regional and global aspirations to a history of analogous post–Cold War, largely Western-led initiatives of similar scale and scope.
Like BRI, those earlier projects sought to stimulate economic development and sociopolitical change by linking goods and people. They aimed to tie together the Eurasian landmass—Earth’s most populous region— into a densely interdependent and integrated network. Unlike BRI, however, these initiatives also implicitly endorsed political liberalization and participation in the rules-based order, an emphasis deliberately excised from Beijing’s vision. Indeed, Rolland notes, many countries—particularly those with an authoritarian bent—may have been reluctant to embrace the subtext of openness that lay beneath infrastructure projects led by Western countries and international financial institutions (IFIs). Given today’s stronger illiberal current and China’s established rhetoric of political noninterference, BRI’s implicit tagline of “connectivity without political openness” may prove relatively appealing.
The Belt and Road Initiative projects a core diplomatic message, Rolland argues. It is that connection, interaction, and cooperation with China can lead to development in areas where Western countries and IFIs have failed to deliver. If Beijing’s vision comes to fruition, Rolland contends, the upshot may be the replacement of the liberal international order by a vast, illiberal, China-centric network of states entwined economically, socially, and politically under Beijing’s strategic sway.
Rolland puts BRI into historical context, examining its regional precursors and evolution. She proceeds by methodically analyzing the initiative’s drivers, components, and domestic and international objectives. To study how Chinese policy makers and scholars conceive of this project, Rolland bypasses China’s English-language public-relations efforts. She draws instead from official Chinese-language sources that speak for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership; influential Chinese journals; and interviews with CCP officials and Chinese analysts familiar with the (largely unaired) discussions of BRI within China’s ruling circles.
Her inquiry reveals an intentionally flexible and shifting arrangement driven by internal economic and external strategic considerations. In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, Beijing perceived the Obama administration’s “rebalancing” in favor of the Asia-Pacific and its push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement as components of a strategy to...