A new book on the new Silk Roads has just been published by Professor Sarwar Kashmeri, Fellow, Foreign Policy Association and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Norwich University. This book is characterised by the authors’s very good understanding of China’s strategy. Relatively short, “China’s Grand Strategy ; Weaving a New Silk Road to Global Primacy” goes right to the point and explains what the BRI is and how it embodies the vision of the world promoted by China.
Intended for students, researchers and the general public, it deals with complex themes that the author clearly explains, even using pop culture examples.
This well-documented book allows readers to better understand the BRI project and realize its growing importance in world affairs. As the author writes, the BRI has long been wrongly perceived in the United States as the manifestation of Chinese neocolonialism.
The author, however, is not a blissful China supporter and knows the obstacles to the realization of BRI programme, especially that of the management of complex and multilateral projects, but as Sarwar Kahsmeri reminds the BRI is only in its earlier stages.
In his introduction, Professor Kashmeri presents the three phases of the Chinese strategy initiated in 1978. With the reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping to open up the economy, China has managed to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and to become the largest trading power. The second phase is that of military power. China’s spending in this area is only a third of that of the United States, but China has managed to secure its shores from any threat. The third stage of this strategy is the one we are experiencing today through the consolidation of new alliances. These are not built on military power unlike the United States, but on trade and the development of new infrastructure. The realization of the “Belt and Road initiative” is its main instrument.
The author then defines what the BRI is, and presents it as a network of economic corridors made of infrastructure but also of financial flows that place China at the center of the world. Professor Kashmeri understands that the BRI is a flexible and adaptable programme that can be used not only in regions along the ancient Silk Roads, but all around the world.
For the author, the BRI is, above all, a vision, which he compares with that formulated by former US President Kennedy to send a man on the moon. These visions reflect a country’s confidence in its future and its leadership.
Like any vision, the BRI program is not detailed, it is a goal to be achieved, and the path to achieve it can evolve through time and requires significant investment.
To finance this program, China inaugurated in 2016, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; this new financial institution has managed to attract United States’s closest allies, and today, private investors participate in financing BRI projects.
In less than 6 years, the Chinese BRI has succeeded in attracting most of the international community.
Professor Kahsmeri also shows how China is creating new alliances thanks to the BRI. The author revisits the Marshall Plan, which is often used to describe the BRI, -although this comparison is refuted by Beijing-. For Professor Kashmeri, the BRI is a “Marshall plan under steroids”, amounts of money are more substantial and the program has no deadline. For the author, China is attracting more allies than the United States, thanks to trade and infrastructure.
He then discusses the “Malacca dilemma”, which means for China to reduce its dependence on the Strait of Malacca while increasing its presence in Southeast Asia. The Straits of Malacca is a potential bottleneck that controls 60% of trade with China. The author asserts that China has no global military ambitions other than to protect its regional interests.
In the fourth chapter of China’s Grand Strategy, Professor Kashmeri reviews four BRI flagship projects: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the development of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, and the acquisition of the port of Piraeus in Greece. In these examples, the author focuses on the financial and geopolitical aspects.
In Pakistan, Chinese investment in infrastructure will put an end to one of the major problems of the Pakistani economy, that is frequent power shortage.
Although loans contracted by Islamabad are substantial, the benefits derived from the modernization of infrastructure will allow the country to repay them.
The author reports on the geopolitical importance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the China-Myanmar Corridor, that will bypass the very strategic strait of Malacca, and better connect the western provinces of China to the world market.
In Myanmar, the BRI consists of the construction of new pipelines, special economic zones and dams. While some projects have been delayed or abandoned, Myanmar continues to see the BRI as a major opportunity as the country faces a decline in investment due to the Rohingya crisis.
Professor Kashmeri also analyses the case of the port of Hambantota, which is often put forward to criticize the BRI, and he does not believe in the theory of the “innocent victim”. He explains how, thanks to the investment made by China, this port is to become a major hub in the Indian Ocean.
Finally, the last example chosen by the author is the port of Piraeus, whose acquisition by COSCO in 2016 relieved the Greek government that faced then some financial difficulty, and allowed China to strenfghten its interests within the European Union, which raised eyebrows in Brussels.
This book also examines the place of Africa in China’s Grand Strategy. For Professor Kahsmeri, the African continent holds a special place in the BRI project. It is of course to develop infrastructures to strengthen exchanges with China, but also to make Africa “the new factory of the world”, – term that used to describe China-. As production costs rise in China, Chinese companies set up in Africa to continue production at lower costs, and follow the pattern of Japanese companies that had relocated their production in the “Asian Tigers” in the late 1980’s. China thus is offering its expertise to Africa, a continent that will soon host a new generation of entrepreneurs.
The author responds to criticisms that projects run by Chinese companies in Africa employ very little local labor, and shows, through several examples, that Chinese companies in Africa are creating jobs.
He ends this chapter by describing the construction of several infrastructure projects with Chinese financing in Africa, in Djibouti and elsewhere. In many African countries such as Kenya, the “Belt and Road Initiative” is embedded in the national development policy. He notes that in Africa (and in other continents), China has managed to create a “BRI brand”. Thus many infrastructure projects in Africa were launched before the BRI was created in 2013, but are now considered BRI-labeled projects, which helps to increase the visibility of these projects.
His last chapter examines the US response to the Chinese initiative; the author deplores the lack of a consistent US strategy for China. Although several answers were formulated by Washington, they suffer from the comparison with the BRI, and offer much fewer resources.
Of course, the BRI also faces some weaknesses that the author points out, such as the (slight) slowdown of the Chinese economy. But for Professor Kashmeri, Beijing has the ability to adapt his massive project to circumstances and, therefore, he does not believe in the failure of the BRI. Today, the United States remains one of the very few countries to frontally reject the “Belt and Road Initiative” but has no ambition for an alternative to the BRI. For example, Professor Kashmeri notes the poor condition of American infrastructure. He believes that a US participation in the Belt and Road initiative could allow the United States to modernize its own infrastructure without threatening the American consumers’ budget.
The author concludes his book on the need for China and the United States to coexist peacefully in a century that could be both Chinese and American.
China’s Grand Strategy is a valuable book to better understand the BRI. The author breaks down prejudices against this Chinese project, by questioning the debt trap theory put forward by BRI detractors.
Although it covers many BRI-labeled projects (the author presents a list of BRI projects as an appendix), it cannot deal with each BRI project. Sarwar Kashmeri thus discusses the place of Africa in the vision developed by China, but other regions are a bit less studied. As a European, I would have appreciated a deeper analysis of the consequences of the BRI on Sino-European relations. Middle East and Central Asia are given little coverage and Latin America is absent. However, we cannot blame the author who chose to focus on China and US-China relations.
His analysis goes further than the usual analysis of the BRI, because Sarwar Kashmeri has understood that the BRI is a global project where the construction of new infrastructure is only one aspect, and that the BRI is, as he points out, a Chinese vision of the world.
This book describes China’s grand strategy to make China the center of the world (again). For the author, the realization of the BRI is the third phase of the Chinese vision, after successful economic transformation and military power. The geopolitical character of the BRI and in particular the issue of the Straits of Malacca are discussed at length by Sarwar Kashmeri, Professor of Political Science at Norwich University, the oldest military academy in the United States.
Professor Kashmeri also shows us that the BRI is by no means perceived as a threat by other states but the United States or some European countries ; it is considered an opportunity to develop according to a possible Chinese model. It is also the conclusion of the American dream.
“China’s Grand Strategy” is therefore a book to better understand the beginnings of the BRI, which as the author indicates, is a project that runs over several decades.