Eyck Freymann: Why Conventional Wisdom on China’s Belt & Road is Wrong

What does conventional wisdom say about OBOR and why is it wrong?  

Conventional wisdom is that OBOR is primarily an infrastructure, development finance, or connectivity initiative, and should be evaluated on those terms.  I think that’s only half-right, at best. The OBOR slogan actually elides three different dimensions of the same phenomenon. Physical, debt-financed infrastructure is only one dimension. And this model preceded Xi Jinping and the OBOR slogan. The more important and less-studied dimensions are OBOR as a brand for Chinese national power, or a conceptual shorthand for a Chinese model of world order that evokes a whole complex of constructed historical claims; and OBOR as a campaign, propelled largely by the Chinese grassroots with help from friendly foreigners, to make more of China’s political and economic interactions with the rest of the world serve that concept. In other words, OBOR’s drivers and motivations are much more domestic than has been commonly realized. Propaganda is more important than has been commonly realized. And it is all far more personalized to Xi Jinping’s own legacy and personality cult than has been commonly realized. 

The second big error in conventional wisdom is that OBOR is some nefarious, predatory “debt trap” scheme that ensnares gullible partner countries into vassalage to China. My book shows, using several of case studies, including the prominent case of Hambantota, Sri Lanka, that many if not most OBOR-branded projects are actually driven from start to finish by the recipient country—even if the money, materials, labor, and know-how comes from China. In other words, lecturing developing countries that it’s not in their interest to partner with China is a failed strategy. We now have confirmation, by the way, that that was the Trump administration’s approach. Last week, Trump’s National Security Council declassified its “Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific.” The document confirms that the U.S. strategy has been to “communicate to allies and partners” the strings attached to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative.'” But how many countries have actually repudiated OBOR in a lasting way after learning about the “strings attached”? By my count, just India and the Maldives. Countries think they know what their interests are; it’s not easy to convince them otherwise. 

Media coverage have far overplayed OBOR’s impact on global trade. China has made minimal efforts to construct an actual trading bloc between member states. As far as the pandemic goes, Chinese exports to the U.S. are higher than ever. As China rebalances its domestic economy to support consumers, it is also importing more, particularly from Southeast Asia. Again, it’s important not to conflate OBOR with global trade patterns, since there has been minimal effort to do trade deals under the banner of OBOR. 


What activities and tactics has China engaged in internationally to promote OBOR? Has the CCP’s attempts to gain support for the initiative been effective?  

The CCP has a well-developed propaganda apparatus, which Xi Jinping has empowered and expanded. The Central Propaganda Department (CPD) is the heart of the system, loosely overseeing a broad complex of propaganda activities and multimedia organizations for domestic and foreign audiences. For domestic audiences, I argue that OBOR is being pitched essentially as a new-and-improved return of the imperial “tributary system.” The tributary system is a constructed, Western idea that never “existed” in a formalized sense, but it’s a historical touchstone that all Chinese people are familiar with. The idea is one of a harmonious regional or global order with China at the center, where peripheral states pay tribute to China’s centrality and superior status, and in return receive favorable access to Chinese technology, products, and markets. In propaganda for foreigners, by contrast, references to the Han Dynasty and the tributary system are almost entirely absent. There is a lot less focus on the political elements of the project, and much more focus on concrete, measurable financial gains that the foreigners will enjoy if they participate. The effort to promote OBOR has been largely grassroots, including many books, conferences, and so forth not organized by the central CCP. So it’s important, I think, to focus on the most authoritative sources of propaganda, which can be found in CCTV documentaries, essays in party mouthpieces like the People’s Daily, and the like. 


What are the consequences of increased Chinese influence in regions already prone to corruption and authoritarianism, and for regions that are trying to democratize? Are advanced democracies immune to China’s influence? 

There is a meme in the U.S. discussion about OBOR that China is “exporting” an “authoritarian model” of national or regional order, via OBOR. Elizabeth Economy and other scholars I respect have made this argument, and they can point to scattered examples. But my own analysis of OBOR case studies finds that it’s basically compatible with democracy. China has invested in basically every country on earth, and you’d be hard-pressed to name half a dozen where democratic structures have been meaningfully weakened as a direct result. I think OBOR is more pro-elite than it is anti-democratic. It offers a value proposition for whoever happens to be in power in the partner country at the time: sing China’s praises and give it long-term market access and status benefits, and China will repay with short-term political favors that are useful for staying in power and playing off regional rivals. That’s why opposition parties everywhere are usually anti-OBOR, and quickly reconcile with China once they take power themselves and the logic of the scheme starts working in their favor. As long as this trend holds, and China has friends in every major political party in every country where it has interests, Beijing doesn’t care all that much if an election brings a new party to power. China can adapt. I’d caution, though, that past performance is no guarantee of future results. OBOR has the potential to evolve into a China-led authoritarian political bloc. That’s one reason why the United States in particular has to think very carefully about what is says about OBOR. We do not at all want to facilitate or enable that transformation. 

What is the DSR and does it pose any serious risks to the freedoms and sovereignty of foreign nations as well as the global internet?

The DSR has been around for years but is emerging as a major focus of the Chinese leadership coming out of the pandemic. China has a sophisticated tech sector, particularly in digital payments and cloud services, and would like to help these companies internationalize for all the obvious reasons. There have been scattered reports of China exporting surveillance technology or suggesting it could help OBOR partner governments set up their own “social credit” systems. So far, little of substance has been done in this domain, though this is an obvious direction OBOR could move in in the future—particularly if, in response to U.S. opposition, China decides to try to convert OBOR into a China-led geopolitical bloc.  

Do China’s Arctic ambitions pose a threat to Canadian sovereignty? 

China isn’t prosecuting any territorial claims in the Arctic, and it doesn’t have its own base of operations in the Arctic, which makes it dependent on partner countries in the region for refueling and commercial operations. Mostly, I think China is focused on avoiding getting shut out of the region altogether when the sea ice melts. Russia has tried to position itself as China’s gatekeeper to the Arctic, supporting the expansion of the Northern Sea Route, which for the moment is basically an occasional Chinese merchant ship sailing with a Russian naval escort. In the early 2010s, China made a series of overtures to Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Greenland to explore jointly building logistics infrastructure. Most of these efforts failed. Perhaps one day we will learn that Washington’s fingerprints were all over this. 

How has the Meng Wanzhou affair and the case of the Two Michaels influenced the economic relationship between Canada and China? Is China still a viable economic partner for Canada? 

China and Canada will remain important economic partners for a number of reasons, including Canada’s abundant natural resources, the large diaspora population, and the attractiveness of Canadian universities to Chinese students. But I think the scales have fallen from Canadians’ eyes in the past two to three years. Ottawa—and by Ottawa I mean mainly the Liberal Party—is coming to recognize that China is a fast-rising illiberal state that is increasingly willing to violate international law and squeeze small-to-medium countries when it is displeased. Canada is still catching up to Australia and New Zealand in recognizing the threat that the CCP’s United Front activities can pose to national security and democratic processes. This is going to be a long-term challenge for Canada because so many Canadians have Chinese ancestry, or relatives back in China, and are therefore vulnerable in various ways to coercion from the CCP. Canada doesn’t just need to protect its institutions from CCP interference; it also needs to protect its citizens from being blackmailed or put in impossible positions by the CCP. I suspect that the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries in similar positions will eventually need to coalesce behind a common policy for dealing with this challenge. 

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