Observe calmly; secure our positive; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our times; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

Deng Xiaoping

China’s five-millennia-old history can be compared to the Romans and Greeks who shaped modern society. The great dynasties of Han and Qin unified China’s land, but their rigid policies refusing to change with geopolitical dynamics of the 19th century lead to their downfall and to the Age of Humiliation (1839-1939) by Western powers. This was followed by a short stint of a Democratic Republic under the nationalist leaders Sun-Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek who were ousted by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China (CPC).

The Communist nation saw two ambitious projects, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, fail greatly and lead to famine and instability. Yet gradually, China’s soft power grew globally under Premier Zhou Enlai, and its economy saw a boost due to Deng Xiaoping’s liberal policies. Now, modern China has a barrel full of cash and weapons, and an ambitious dream, and Beijing has started following the “wolf warriors” form of diplomacy.

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) in Kazakhstan, and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) in Indonesia. The two form the main components of the BRI, often known internationally as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The various projects of the BRI integrate Eurasia and offer a way to stabilize security environment around China’s southern and western periphery, as well as strengthen China’s energy security by diversifying supply and transport routes of oil and gas. American influence in South China Sea has always been a constant threat to China’s shipping routes, especially the Malacca Strait choke point. BRI offers China a way to amass strategic influence in Eurasia’s heartland while deftly avoiding direct competition with the United States.

belt and road map
China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Source: MERICS research.

BRI is compared to the ancient Silk Route, with a hope to put China in the centre of the global, and especially Asian, economy. The grand projects are funded by Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (USD 100bn), the Silk Road Fund (USD 40bn), China Development Bank (USD 890bn) and Ex-Im bank of China (USD 3.7tn) and  Sovereign Wealth Fund ( USD 220bn).

The nature of BRI is closely connected to the economic development of modern China. Initially, the CPC depended on the Soviets for international support and funds to run the new nation. However, Sino-Soviet relations dampened after USSR supported India in the border disputes with China, China and Albania joined hands in criticism of the USSR, and finally, when a provoked Zhou Enlai left the 1961 Communist Party Congress held in the Soviet Union. This marked a great change in China’s foreign policy and led Mao to define China’s Three Worlds Theory.

The argument first introduced the idea of an ‘intermediate zone’ between two superpowers in 1946, and then, in the 1960s, the ‘two intermediate zones’ theory. In the latter, Mao categorized countries into two groups – one, the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin and America, and two, the developed and capitalist countries as represented by Europe. He noted that both groups opposed American control, while Eastern European countries opposed Soviet dominance.

Building on this, Premier Zhou asserted that China must strengthen cooperation with the first i.e. the developing group of countries, and support them in gaining independence, protecting their sovereignty and resources, and developing their economy. Accordingly, China, began to strengthen cooperation with African nations, its first partners.

This theory gave China a major victory; China replaced Taiwan in the UN Security Council in 1971, with 76 votes in favour, 35 against, and 17 abstentions. This wouldn’t have been possible  without the support of 26 African countries that voted in favour of the Chinese plea. Mao Zedong acknowledged it by saying, “we were brought back into the United Nations by our black African friends”. China selected strategic partners in Africa and Asia and solidified its position as a leader in the Third World.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Four Modernisations’ policy transformed China’s economic structure and foreign policy. China joined the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1980, which it had previously criticised. Chinese economy began to welcome foreign capital. However, with these moves and reconciliation with the United States, China did not abandon its Third World Theory but changed its discourse from the political to the economic.

The ‘reform and opening up’ policy necessary to launch the Four Modernisations programme; established, among other things, Sino-Japanese economic cooperation. Guilt about its assaults on China during World War 2, especially the Nanking Massacre, made Japan a significant donor to China. Western countries and international financing organisations jumped in as well. The focus on national economic development also changed the objectives of Chinese aid, from political to economic.

From the 1980s, China tweaked the Japanese ‘trinity’ model  – aid, trade, and investment, – by adding to it a fourth leg, the provision of technical assistance. Thus, China created the ‘quaternity’ model.

The ‘quaternity’ model not only enables China to export its labour and services to benefactory nations, but also creates a close association between bilateral cooperation and state interests. This is quite visible in the BRI; the Export-Import Bank of China gives loans to BRI member nations strategically, and many have criticised the dual nature (commercial and Chinese military use) of BRI projects. These loans are cited to be a part of China’s “debt-trap” diplomacy aiming to entangle nations in debt which can be escaped only by ceding some territory for Chinese military use. China’s aid and investment is increasingly compared to the colonial infrastructure Europeans built to loot their colonies and there is a fear China would do the same in Africa and Asia.

Thus, in modern China, the Third World theory has combined with the quaternity model of aid and metamorphosed into the ambitious BRI, spanning continents, and involving nations which are economically weak and need funding to drive their development.

The Cult of Xi

Since Xi Jinping’s ascendance to Presidency, Chinese foreign policy is revising China’s ‘Middle Kingdom’ attitude and is flexing its muscles in a more assertive and nationalistic manner. President Xi has gone all guns blazing to foster Sino-centric approach among both, the establishment, and the people. Aggressive diplomacy, censorship of press, disbarment of human rights lawyers and a national credit score for shaping citizens’ behaviour are few steps by Xi to strengthen his grip on China.

Within CPC, 2 million members have been booked for corruption charges. Xi has removed the term limit on Presidency which was imposed by Deng Xiaoping. Following Mao’s strategy to instil a grand propaganda, Xi has resorted to using nationalism and gathering a cult-like following through books, articles, controlled press and incentives. With these measures, he plans to enlist his name in China’s modern history as the man who pioneered China’s dominance of the world.

Subrajoti Paul

Subrajoti Paul is an undergraduate student at the School of Planning and Architecture, Vijayawada. He is an avid writer of academic and op-ed articles and has a keen interest in street photography.


The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.


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