China’s Grand Strategy: Weaving a New Silk Road to Global Primacy is the latest book by Sarwar A. Kashmeri, Adjuct Professor of Political Science at Norwich University’s Peace & War Center, Fellow of the Foreign Policy Association, author and current affairs commentator. Prof. Kashmeri also hosts Carnegie Corporation of New York’s “China Focus” podcast series. The book is a must read for those willing to understand more about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the dynamics which shape the international arena. In this interview, Prof. Kashmeri provides valuable insights into some of the most relevant issues in international relations.
Q: In the introduction of your book, the 3 phases of China’s strategy are well described. Phase one began in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping decided that it was the right time to inject capitalism into the Chinese economy, opening up the country, introducing reforms aimed at increasing GDP and reducing poverty. The second phase, you argue, relates to the military strategy, while phase 3 focused on the implementation of alliances on the global scene. In 2013, Xi Jinping announced China’s intention to launch the ambitious plan to restore the ancient splendor of the Silk Roads, and many states joined the One Belt, One Road initiative (as the BRI was known back then), inaugurating infrastructure, economic, and political partnerships with Beijing. This incredibly deep and rapid transformation of China was led by both Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, two leaders who have the merit of having foreseen their country’s needs in the face of new challenges posed by the 21st century. In that sense, what would you say sets Chinese leaders apart from their Western counterparts ?
A: The most important characteristic of a leader is articulating a vision that captures the imagination of their citizens and moves them to accomplish what appears impossible: for example, US President John F. Kennedy and his “moonshot” vision to land Americans on the moon within a decade, China President Xi Jinping’s BRI, and Jean Monnet/Robert Schuman/Conrad Adenauer’s conception of the European Union. In all three cases there were more unknowns than knowns, but these leaders all knew their vision would inspire their people to do the impossible. Americans and Europeans met the challenge, and the Chinese are in the process of meeting it with the BRI. As an American, and a long time Atlanticist, it saddens me to say that somewhere along the line American leaders have lost their “vision,” and so have the Europeans. In the 21st Century, China is the only major country to have a vision. America needs to re-discover the dynamism of the “moonshot,” and re-establish a vision to inspire Americans. Europeans need to continue their quest of an ever-closer union. This to me is the core differentiator between Chinese and Western leaders.
Q: In “China’s Grand Strategy”, you introduce the BRI as an open-ended and bold vision to stitch half of the world together with China at the center, and you also define it as a “Marshall Plan under steroids”. What are the main obstacles to this project ?
A: There are two that come readily to mind: (1) Hubris. Meaning BRI’s early success might give China the idea that it knows best. For instance, have China’s leaders thought through the impact on EU sensitivities of the China-led and -created “16+1” group of Central and East European countries to bi-laterally negotiate and implement BRI projects ? Should China have put in more time to establish norms that better align with EU policies and plans ?
(2) Cultural sensitivities. Pakistan (the BRI’s marquee project) and virtually all Central Asian Republics are Muslim-majority countries. China’s treatment of its Muslim/Uighur population is already sparking religious push-back for BRI projects in those countries. There has been violence against Chinese workers in Pakistan, some have even been killed. The BRI is present in over a hundred countries now: how to synchronize Chinese efficiency and technology with the variety of ethnicities, religions, and cultures is a daunting task at best. Can China meet this challenge ?
Q: Chinese hubris could be seen as a combination of different elements. The “humiliation century” experienced by the country still influences Beijing’s strong desire for “rejuvenation” (some might say “vengeance”). But, in chapter three of your book, you also mention how Americans tend to underestimate the important role that other players have on the global scene. What are the implications – both for China and the US – of this extreme feeling of pride and confidence ?
A: Here I am dealing only with China. And what I meant by “hubris” was a sense of overconfidence. As China spreads its BRI projects around the world in record time, there is all likelihood that a feeling of “we can do no wrong” will creep into the Chinese government. Especially because BRI is making good progress now. Will China be able to tailor itself to handle problems that will inevitably creep up (cultural, financial, etc.) in countries of all sizes, ethnicities, and religions ? Or will China deal with problems by saying “the Chinese way or the highway” ? To be determined…
Q: The West is certainly aware of the China’s increasing economic engagement in Africa. Since 2006, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) takes place every three years under the theme of “friendship, peace, cooperation and development”. In September 2018, the 7th FOCAC was held in Beijing, where Xi Jinping confirmed that China would provide $60 billion to African countries through financial aid in very diverse forms: interest-free loans, grants, credit lines and investments in infrastructures. You selected a few investments to highlight China’s Africa strategy: the MoU with Tunisia, the satellite launch in Algeria, the BRI cooperation agreement with Senegal, cooperation with Liberia for the construction of an artificial hair processing and export hub, the hydro project in Cote d’Ivoire, and the first cable linking Africa and Latin America thanks to projects activated in Cameroon. These examples should be added to several other initiatives in Tanzania, Chad, Nigeria, Malawi, Egypt, and Mozambique. In spite of concerns in the US and in the EU, China seems to have captured the hearts and minds of the people in Africa thanks to its capacity to provide concrete opportunities. Would you agree with this assessment ?
A: I basically agree. But, is that universally true in Africa, as you say in your last sentence that China has captured the hearts and minds of Africa ? We need more time to pass. India has been in African commerce for over 150 years, increasingly Indian finance and retail businesses are making inroads because they know the landscape and people.
Q: The Sino-Russian relationship seems to become increasingly important in each country’s global influence strategy. Even though Russia and China have experienced ups and downs in their diplomatic and economic ties since 1949, they are now clearly moving towards an era of strategic partnership focused on cooperation and agreements in trade, energy, culture, and technology. Over the recent days, we even read that Russia is helping China build a warning system to detect incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. In addition, Moscow and Beijing could develop a common Arctic strategy in the natural resources field. What do you think about this relationship ?
A: It is an alliance of need. And will remain so as long as the US and the EU treat China as a strategic competitor. This is particularly true of the US. The Russia-China axis is a powerful foil to American hegemony and global military footprint. Based on national interests. It will last as long as Russia’s and China’s national interests align. As they do now, and will probably continue to do so for the next couple of decades.
Q: How should the US handle China’s influence ? What is the American grand strategy for China, if any ?
A: Alas, unfortunately for this American, the US has no grand strategy for China that I am aware of. And I say this especially after a conversation with a senior White House official. I would like to see America massively finance another equivalent of Kennedy’s “moonshot”, to capture technological leadership. Work with China to rebuild American infrastructure. Encourage American banks, private equity firms, and investment firms to help finance BRI projects. And to drop the idea of trying to “contain” China. One cannot contain what is now the largest aviation, cell phone, luxury goods, automobile, etc. market in the world, with almost twice the population of the US and the EU combined. And that’s just China. There is also the rest of Asia. America and the West will no longer be the hegemons in Asia. China will. But America and the West aren’t going anywhere. They are too big to disappear. The question remains: how will America learn to live in a world that it does not dominate. Can it ?
Picture credits: Foreign Policy Association