About underestimating China’s Ambitions and Overestimating China’s Capabilities

Much of the debate on the controversies surrounding BRI is centered around two questions. Is the BRI a grand strategy to advance China’s global strategic interests? Or is it, as the Chinese government itself presents it, a win-win initiative for global peace and development? A second related question concerns the practical consequences of BRI. China has been accused of intentionally engaging in debt diplomacy in order to make countries dependent on China. This could then be used by the Chinese government to force the dependent country to support China’s global political interests. But this idea also assumes that the Chinese government is actually capable of controlling the development of all the BRI projects.

By using the word initiative rather than strategy the Chinese leadership intends to send a message that participants in BRI are on equal footing with China. We should have no illusions about the intentions of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCPs main interest is always to remain in power and its policies are guided with that motive in mind. Moreover, the Chinese government has for the last 30 years step by step engaged in a nationalist discourse and strengthened nationalist sentiments within China to the extent that today there is a notable group in China that thinks the government is being too soft on foreign countries. The Chinese government is expected to defend what is in China’s national interests and the scope of China’s national interests seems to be constantly expanding.

In other words BRI is surely intended to advance China’s global strategic interests, but that does not mean that it will actually be able to do just that. While we should not underestimate Chinese nationalism, we should neither overestimate the CCPs capacity to control the development. The fact that some of the BRI projects have resulted in problems for the receiving countries does not necessarily mean that debt problems is an intended outcome. History has shown that the Party has been quite capable of making huge mistakes unintentionally.

The critique raised against BRI is not new. A similar debate has been heard since the start of China’s going out policy in 1999. China has for example been accused of being a neocolonial power in Africa and considering the many examples of Chinese actors’ misbehavior in Africa the accusation is understandable. However, history has also shown that the Chinese government is learning from mistakes made but that it takes time. Policy adjustments have been made such as China’s role in Sudan, which indicates that the Chinese government is not immune to international critique. Clearly, it is not in the national interest of China to be perceived as a rouge state that completely ignores international norms even if it intends to change these norms. Similarly, the Chinese discourse on the BRI has also changed somewhat and some of the problems, such as the case of Sri Lanka’s Hamantota port have actually been acknowledged, although China tends to avoid to accept blame for the problems.

The BRI has been difficult to define and delimit and it contains a plethora of actors from the Chinese side. The central government has always struggled with problems of overviewing and securing the implementation of its policies within China, we can assume that it struggles with similar problems when it comes to implementation of its policies internationally.

Written by: Oscar Almén (Department of Government, Uppsala University)

Cover photo: A highway in Southern Kyrgyzstan, China- Kyrgyzstan border. Photo by Maria Danilovich. 

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