The parallels between China’s current $1.1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the United States’ post-World War II foreign assistance are inexact but striking.
Like the US in WWII, China was damaged by the 2008 global financial crisis but far less so than most other major economies, allowing it to initiate the BRI in 2013 while the rest of the world was still recovering. China was and remains completely unhindered by costly military adventures in the Middle East as well, of which it has wisely chosen to steer clear.
Recalling the US in 1945-1948, when it commenced the reconstruction of Japan and implemented the Marshall Plan, China’s excess industrial capacity in 2013 necessitated foreign markets for investment and trade. This has since required the development and construction of new modes, facilities, and routes of transportation and communication—“connectivity” in BRI parlance. China needs the beneficiaries of its largesse as much as they need it.
While the Marshall Plan is most associated with West Germany, it was divided among 18 European countries and was linked to the US-dominated Bretton Woods financial institutions. The reconstruction of Japan was the largest effort in the Pacific, but extended to dozens of other colonies, territories and nations.
The BRI includes no fewer than 132 nations and 29 international organizations, among them the now 75-year-old World Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), founded by China in 2016.
A final parallel, at least in its US aspect, has been much discussed in the Trump era; namely that American post-War assistance abroad was part of an effort to establish a new “rules-based order.”
Inclusive of international laws, organizations, agreements and alliances, nearly all driven or strongly backed by the US, it stood essentially for self-determination, economic liberalism, the peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic governance, the rule of law and universal human rights.
Although the US has sometimes since been in grave violation of the rules it helped establish—and despite a President Trump working to dismantle them outright—their prevalence and effects have been greater than those of any alternative for three generations.
This is set to change. Whatever its uncertain economic benefits, China’s BRI is a harbinger and host of a new repressive and illiberal order. This is because, like America’s rehabilitation of Western Europe and the Pacific, nearly all of which became liberal democracies, the BRI reflects the values of its architect.
China is a single-party state with the most pervasive facial recognition system in the world and a Great Firewall designed to obstruct “subversive” ideas and information. It holds an estimated one million Uighur and other Muslim minorities in “reeducation” camps in its Xinjiang region, and has turned Tibet into a totalitarian police state.
It relentlessly persecutes adherents of the spiritual Falun Gong practice. It has undermined the “one country, two systems” policy in Hong Kong and Taiwan with kidnappings of critics, puppet governments, exclusion from international fora and threats of invasion.
More concretely, and again like its American analogue, the BRI engages partners not from “the outside”—per aggression in the South China Sea, for example—but from within.
The BRI’s first tool is diplomacy, exercised via global forums in Beijing, regional frameworks such as the European Union (EU) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and sub-regional mechanisms such as China’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in mainland Southeast Asia.
Its endorsement by the Secretary-General and several agencies of the United Nations (UN) is particularly notable, both for the stark contrast in values and the primacy of the US in the UN’s founding and leadership.
The damage is in the details, however, negotiated bilaterally during meetings and site visits in countries hosting BRI projects. Over meals and maps (and sometimes brown envelopes), Chinese officials and executives cannot help but relate—and promote—how infrastructure and other development initiatives are implemented back home.
Where most journalists, academics, lawyers, and environmentalists are unable or unwilling to work against the interests of the state, and where those who would are detained or disappeared, “progress” tends to move quickly.
While far more protests occur in China than is generally reported and occasionally result in constructive responses, individual rights are simply not a factor in the Party’s equation.
This cheerleading reinforces authoritarianism among like-minded governments, while encouraging the remainder of the spectrum to reconsider their approach to calls for impact assessments, consultations, transparency and accountability in BRI projects.
In contrast to the Marshall Plan, whose application to communism’s Eastern Bloc was denied by the Soviets, the BRI directly exposes Chinese values to governments at (varying levels of) odds with them. The chief selling point, of course, is the raison d’etre of the BRI itself: an economy that “cooled” to 8% growth the year the initiative was announced, en route to becoming the second largest in the world.
Further, the risk of China’s repressive and illiberal values becoming either openly embraced by BRI host countries, or slowly embedded in their political and social fabric, increases over time. This is due to the BRI’s other main tool: the physical and extended presence of Chinese workers, engineers, journalists and officials.
Not unlike the Americans who occupied and rebuilt war-torn Japan, but in contrast to mere tourists, such representatives steadily disseminate the views and values of their sponsors.
In this they are aided by the global proliferation of Confucius Institutes and abetted by China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The former propagate a white-washed picture of China’s history, society and politics to students in their own countries, while the UFWD expressly exists to encourage overseas (and domestic) Chinese to support the Communist Party and shape the conversation about China abroad.
It also helps ensure that any “conflicts of values” among Chinese personnel in more liberal BRI surroundings are resolved in the Party’s favor, not least by heralding China’s national “social credit system”, due for completion next year.
Weapons on the belt
A more insidious effect of the presence of Chinese nationals working on multi-year, multi-million-dollar infrastructure projects, is their ready-made justification for security.
Although this is necessary and sometimes appropriately provided by local security forces, poor training in human rights and cultures of impunity frequently lead to violations against villagers, activists and others. And as China itself has long prioritized national “development” over—and often at the expense of—individual rights, calls for rectification in relation to BRI infrastructure are even less likely to be heard.
Earlier this year, the Frontier Services Group (FSG), a private security company founded by US military contractor Erik Prince, announced it was “opening a forward base in the Chinese province of Yunnan to better serve” BRI projects in Southeast Asia. Prince is best known as the founder and CEO of Blackwater, four of whose security guard employees were convicted for killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in a 2007.
Similar allegations against the company are legion; it was kicked out of Iraq in 2009. The convictions came in a US court, however, with full due process including 30 Iraqi witnesses flown to the US, and spurred legislation providing clear jurisdiction over criminal wrongdoing by private contractors abroad.
That this is utterly unthinkable in China, where secret or show trials are the norm, should raise concern among any country whose BRI projects are “served” by FSG.
Most directly, in July China’s defense minister told a collection of Caribbean and Pacific island nations that Beijing is willing to deepen military exchanges and cooperation “under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.”
While it has long been clear that the BRI has a “dual use” military element, the minister’s words mark a sharp departure from consistent and studied claims to a purely economic initiative. The presence of PLA ships, submarines and personnel at BRI-related ports in particular is well-documented, but China has generally dismissed them as separate, incidental or temporary.
The possibility now exists of their becoming integrated and indefinite, and armed with a proven contempt for human rights.
Thailand, where this author has worked for 17 years, was among the Asia-Pacific nations the US assisted after WW II.
After a brief if promising start, the Americans sacrificed its democratic development on the altar of the Cold War, resulting in less than two decades of genuinely civilian rule since 1945. Despite being a US treaty ally, the kingdom has thus been ripe for recent Chinese overtures, tinged with the irony that it was China’s communism that initially “justified” 40 years of US support for Thai militarism.
The BRI’s flagship project in Thailand is a high-speed railway designed to link Yunnan province and Laos with Malaysia and Singapore, and bears all the hallmarks of an encroaching illiberal order. With terms still not agreed upon, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha summarily ordered the project forward in 2017, pursuant to a military constitution authorizing him to override various domestic legal restrictions.
Having borrowed a page from Beijing’s playbook, he also secured for himself an invitation—denied the first time around—to China’s second BRI forum this past April. To what did the inconvenient legal restrictions apply? The employment and extended presence of 300-400 Chinese engineers in Thailand.
Groundwork for this had been laid since Thailand’s distinct turn toward China beginning in 2001, and had deepened since Prayut staged the country’s second coup d’etat in eight years in 2014. The engineers were preceded in Thailand by the establishment of more Confucius Institutes there than in the rest of Southeast Asia combined.
And, in 2015, President Xi Jinping ordered the vast United Front Work Department to focus more on overseas Chinese students, “new media” journalists and the younger generation of business leaders abroad.
Thailand is also one of four Southeast Asian countries the FSG specifically mentioned in which it plans to provide protective services for BRI projects. It is not clear whether Thai military authorities, who still govern the country after a pre-ordained election earlier this year, have endorsed FSG’s plans or may find them part of a “deal they can’t refuse.”
Such was the case in 2011 when the killing of 13 Chinese sailors on Thailand’s portion of the Mekong River resulted in the country “agreeing” to joint military patrols. The 80th such patrol took place in March of this year, featuring five vessels over four days and a cadre of guards from China’s 280-strong force. Sino-Thai “mil-to-mil” relations have increased exponentially in all facets since the 2014 coup.
Neighboring Myanmar offers an even more sobering story. China announced its BRI less than a year after Muslim minority Rohingyas began leaving Myanmar’s Rakhine state in their largest numbers in over 25 years.
They were escaping decades of systemic persecution by the army and other security forces, who were then called upon to protect several new BRI projects: a deep-water port on the Bay of Bengal, linked to China’s Yunnan province by a railway and natural gas pipeline traversing the same Rakhine state.
This “connectivity” would greatly reduce the geopolitical vulnerability of China’s landlocked southwestern region. In Myanmar’s poorest state, however, it heightened tension concerning the projects’ likely economic beneficiaries and justified still more militarization.
One year later, after a small number of Rohingyas attacked local police posts, Myanmar’s security forces perpetrated a genocide, killing over 6,700 Rohingyas during the first month alone and ethnic cleansing the nation of over 700,000 more.
China publicly condemned the “terrorist attacks” and praised Myanmar’s restoration of “order”, and has since blocked several efforts at the UN Security Council toward an independent investigation and accountability. Instead, it has offered to help “achieve stability and sustained development in Rakhine state”, including via a new BRI-related China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.
At the second BRI summit last April, President Xi responded to growing criticism concerning environmental degradation, corruption, and the “debt traps” into which onerous lending and leasing terms are forcing some countries that host BRI projects.
He pledged commitment to a “Green BRI” and greater consideration of local financial limitations. Criticism he did not address, however—presumably because it has been sparse—concerns the “rights traps” the BRI is slowly cultivating around the world.
Contrary to Beijing’s mantra, which is no less specious for how frequently even Western diplomats repeat it, China clearly interferes in the domestic affairs of other nations, very often to the detriment of fundamental rights and freedoms.
Worms in the silk
Even more primed than infrastructure and energy projects to yield repressive results—indeed partly designed for the purpose—is the “Digital Silk Road” China is also building under the BRI’s rubric.
Quaintly recalling the undersea cables and other communications lines the Americans rebuilt, repaired and expanded after World War II, the construction of internet infrastructure, satellite navigation systems and submarine cables will have economic benefits for participating and non-participating nations alike.
Yet among the Silk Road’s express objectives, per a 2015 white paper by China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce, is “improving the efficiency of policing systems among the Belt and Road countries.”
How this is defined is unclear, but one need only consider how wrong was the 1990s consensus that the internet was going to help liberate and liberalize China to imagine the intended effects. The dearth of critical news and views on China consumed or expressed by its 1.4 billion citizens is remarkable.
The Silk Road’s latest feature is fifth generation (5G) mobile internet technology, able to carry enormous caches of data at almost instant speed. China’s Huawei Technologies, some of whose personnel are credibly linked to Chinese military and intelligence agencies, is already a global leader in 5G’s development and application.
Huawei will afford China not only a platform for monitoring, mining and utilizing data for “defensive” purposes abroad, but also an “offensive” capability to conduct espionage, cyber-attacks and digital theft.
That 5G technology is also projected to eventually drive nations’ transportation systems, energy grids and water networks—the very infrastructure otherwise defining the BRI—makes Huawei’s proliferation an even deeper threat to the rights of non-Chinese citizens.
Again Thailand illustrates. The country leads the world in daily time spent on the internet (9.38 hours), with 74% of its citizens having regular online access.
Although censorship is not pervasive, 2017 amendments to Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act allow the government nearly unfettered authority to restrict free speech, engage in surveillance, conduct warrantless searches of personal data and curtail the utilization of encryption and anonymity.
Thailand is also the global leader in mobile internet use per day (4.56 hours), with much of that time spent on social media. Bangkok has the largest number of active Facebook accounts among cities worldwide, for example, with 22 million.
Reflecting the government’s prevailing trend and presaging its acceleration, Thailand earlier this year indicated that Huawei is leading the race for getting 5G underway across the kingdom.
Perhaps ironically, the US itself offers a warning on how even a liberal global order can be ignored, upset and even partially undone by its leadership.
Thailand is hardly the only nation in the modern era that Washington has instrumentalized in its execution of illegal or imperial campaigns. The first to succumb to CIA pressure to join its extraordinary rendition program, for example, Thailand was followed by 53 others; a “war on terror” waged with torture.
Yet American hypocrisy in relation to a rules-based order indicts America, not the order. This is most evident today under a president both racist and autocratic, but whose effects on liberalism worldwide are tempered by the resiliency of the rules his predecessors helped to establish.
Trump inherited a “pivot” to Asia that never materialized, but whose announcement undoubtedly helped spur China’s BRI. Trump has long talked tough on China, but most of his action has been limited to trade issues; and aside from a firm stance on Huawei, his criticism of the BRI has been largely confined to “debt traps.” He has said almost nothing on China’s recent threats to Taiwan and Hong Kong, much less about Xinjiang or Tibet.
In December last year, Congress passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), designed to increase US security and economic interests in China’s near-abroad. Its authorization of $1.5 billion, however, signals concession more than challenge, considering that the BRI is funded to the tune of $1.1 trillion.
Moreover, although ARIA seeks as well “to increase US … values in the Indo-Pacific region”, such efforts can prove counter-productive if not deftly calibrated to each nation’s unique political culture. As Thailand has demonstrated for two decades, countries seldom welcome lectures on the merits of liberal democracy over authoritarianism; they must be convinced that is in their interests.
The Trump administration articulated a new Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy this past June. It states that China “undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order.”
It makes reference to Xinjiang, Taiwan and the BRI’s “unsustainable debt burdens”, and pledges to “Advance an international order that is most conducive to our security and prosperity.”
Yet, as the “pivot” made painfully clear, a strategy can only be as strong as the resources and political will behind it. FOIP mentions only the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, passed by Congress last October to create a new lending agency of some $60 billion.
This allocation is far larger than ARIA’s, but so is its global scale, raising similar doubts as to its competitiveness against a BRI already present in one form or another in 71% of the world’s countries.
And while few question Trump’s commitment to the strategy, it is also clear that his personal conception of “an international order” is at odds with America’s standing, interests and values in the region. Whether FOIP can fulfill its potential will depend largely on the outcomes of future budget debates and the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, Northeast Asian treaty allies Japan and South Korea, despite falling further behind China economically, are failing to link their engagement to continuance of a liberal rules-based order.
Japan’s (veiled) criticism of the BRI is limited to promoting “quality infrastructure”, while South Korea’s New Southern Policy does not include concerns for governance or rights. Likewise for the New Southbound Policy of Taiwan, which the US is bound by an act of Congress to defend if attacked by China.
And in Southeast Asia, the only US treaty ally other than Thailand, the Philippines, has hurled itself into Beijing’s sphere of influence under President Rodrigo Duterte.
Facing a full-frontal assault by China and a hasty retreat by its defenders, the rules defining and guiding the international community for three quarters of a century are giving way. No matter how resilient, they will buckle entirely under Beijing’s new belts and roads if “debt traps” remain the first and foremost concern.
It is the debt accruing to future generations—in human rights, legal protections, cyber-security, representative government and much, much more—which should be the primary foreign policy focus of America and its allies.
China’s late chairman Mao Zedong was on the verge of his revolutionary victory when the Marshall Plan and its Asian counterpart got underway. Mao’s successor’s flagship project—this century’s equivalent of communism on the march—calls for a similarly unflinching and foresighted response.
Benjamin Zawacki is an independent analyst based in Bangkok and author of Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China