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Essay: China’s Belt and Road Initiative: The End of U.S. Hegemony

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Place, date of submission: Regensburg, 2/1/19
Abstract

China believes that the United States is an omnipresent threat to its sovereignty, territorial integrity and seeks to contain its rise. According to offensive realism, states with an abundant amount of power have the best chance of survival. Hence, China needs to maximise its power and potentially pursue hegemony to guarantee its survival and to deny the United States the opportunities to avert its rise by ending its dominance. Accordingly, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) safeguards China’s survival and its rise by maximising its power. Firstly, the BRI minimises potential risks like commodity shortages and political instability through alternative trade routes and economic development. Moreover, the BRI represents a huge economic potential for China, increasing its share of global wealth. Secondly, with the BRI Beijing gains leverage over participating countries and can influence their behaviour while reducing their receptivity to U.S. influence. Thirdly, the BRI represents a pathway to establish an international order free of U.S. dominance, since it enables China to build economic and institutional statecraft capabilities. Taken together, this entails an erosion of U.S. power, shifting the distribution of power in China’s favour and ultimately causing U.S. hegemony to end. The BRI assures that the Washington has no longer the power to contain China. However, it is uncertain whether China aims to be the next global hegemon as Beijing presumably seeks to reconstruct a “Concert of Great Powers”. Moreover, China not necessarily wants to completely change the international order, it rather seeks to “improve” it where its interests are not met. The success of the BRI dependents on its perception by other states as a genuine economic opportunity as they are wary of other states true intentions according to offensive realism.

1 Problem Statement

Presented in 2013 by China’s president Xi Jinping (Yang, Lewis, Roddy & Moise, 2018) the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an infrastructure concept, consisting of overland routes travelling through Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe and sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) connecting China to Europe and Africa (map p.3). Besides the construction of physical infrastructure, which is largely financed by China, the BRI aims to enhance cooperation in trade and the financial sector as well as people-to-people exchanges (Alon, Zhang & Lattemann, 2018, p.2). Once realised, it could connect 70% of the global population, reach 75% of the known energy resources and encompass 55% of the world’s Gross National Product (Yang et al., 2018, p.56). China uses an inclusive language to promote the BRI and emphasises the benefits for participating countries (Alon et al., 2018, p.7). Despite China’s of “win-win” diplomacy (Lubina, 2017, p. 21), this paper argues that the BRI is a tool to maximise China’s power to safeguard its survival and steady rise, which Beijing believes are threatened by the United States (Scobell & Nathan, 2012). Washington is alleged to seek the alteration of the Chinese political system and containment of China’s economic and military capacities (Sauders, 2014, p. 148), illustrated by the U.S. “pivot to Asia” (Sutter, 2014, pp.99-100; Ross, 2012). It was perceived as subverting Beijing’s efforts to strengthen its regional position (Sun, 2013) and it revived fears of encirclement in China (Lubina, 2017, p.86; Scobell & Nathan, 2012). The soundest strategy to guarantee survival according to offensive realism is to possess an overwhelming amount of power (Mearsheimer, 2006, p. 72). Hence, to ensure its wellbeing, China needs to accumulate as much power as possible. Consequentially, ending U.S. hegemony, so that Washington is no longer able to threaten China’s position and contain its rise. This paper analyses how the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) guarantees China’s survival.

This paper is structured as follows: firstly, the sources are assessed, before outlining the theory of offensive realism and applying it to the BRI, analysing how the BRI secures the survival of the Chinese state. Moreover, the implications on the international system are discussed. After a brief summary, the analysis is assessed.
2 Assessment of Sources
An abundant amount of literature exists on China and the BRI. Following literature was particularly useful: Phillip Saunders’ and Robert Sutter’s chapters in the book “International Relations of Asia” on China and the United States respectively provided excellent background information. However, being published in 2014, it is not up-to-date concerning recent events. Michał Lubina’s well-researched book “Russia and china – a political marriage of convenience – stable and successful” mediates valuable knowledge on China. The currently published book “China’s Belt & Road Initiative” served as the main source regarding the initiative, in particular, the chapters by Francis Schortgen and Thomas Lairson. It is problematic to stay up-to-date concerning developments around the BRI, as it is a broad concept rather than a concrete plan and changes occur (Eder, 2018). The primary sources of the two last-named works are a wellspring for deeper insights and the paper is largely based on them. Competent knowledge was provided by John Ikenberry’s and Darren Lim’s assessment of “China’s emerging institutional statecraft”. Regarding the theoretical part, Tim Dunne’s and Brian Schmidt’s chapter on realism served as a primary source, followed by John Mearsheimer’s take on structural realism in “International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity”, especially his knowledge on offensive realism.

Figure 1‑1 Map of BRI

(Source: Merics as seen in Eder, 2018)3 Analysis

After presenting offensive realism, the theory is consulted to explain what China seeks to achieve with the BRI and its implication on the international system.

3.1 Theory
In realism the sovereign state is the unitary actor in a system where anarchy prevails, meaning there is no centralised authority, which governs all states. Consequently, states rely on themselves to ensure their prosperity, territorial integrity and sovereignty, which realism dubs the survival of the state, being the primary interest of all states (Dunne & Schmidt, 2017, pp.105-106).

Moreover, states can never be certain about other states’ true intentions (Mearsheimer, 2006, p.73). Thus, the foreign policy of a state, oriented on its national interest, must aim to maximising its power, as outlined by offensive realism, since possessing an overwhelming amount of power represents simply the soundest strategy to guarantee survival (Mearsheimer, 2006, p.72; Zürn, 1998, pp.536-537). As a result, states constantly seek opportunities to accumulate more power, and if the conditions are promising, pursue hegemony. More power for one state means less for another, which modifies the distribution of power in the system. However, this cannot be tolerated by other states, leading to a continuous competition for power (Mearsheimer, 2006, pp.74-75; Dunne & Schmidt, 2017, pp.108-111).

Although power is the key indicator in realism, its concept is under-theorised and incongruently utilised and traditionally based on military assets states possess (Dunne & Schmidt, 2017, p.110). However, war remains not an exclusive method by which states can expand their power, they can achieve this e.g. by accumulating a greater share of global wealth (Mearsheimer, 2006, pp.72-73). Power is exerted in relation to other states and relative concept, meaning one’s own power is compared to others’ power. Moreover, a refined concept of power would include the capability of states to dominate or influence others in non-conflictual circumstances (Dunne & Schmidt, 2017, p.110). Power is defined here as the capabilities or resources, states possess relative to others, with which they can influence and exert diverse types of pressure against each other; inspired by William Wohlfort’s material definition (1993, p.4).
3.2 The Belt and Road Initiative
To guarantee China’s survival, according to offensive realism, the BRI must aim to maximise China’s power and serve the national interests, so that China can deny Washington to curtail China’s sovereignty and impede its continuous rise. This means ending U.S. supremacy, while China seeks hegemony for its own. Corresponding to offensive realism, hegemony is not pursed for conquest, or domination in itself, possessing a devastating amount of power represents the soundest strategy to guarantee survival (Mearsheimer, 2006, p.72). Subsequently, it is analysed how the BRI serves China’s national interests and guarantees its survival.

Alongside sovereignty and territorial integrity, China defines its national interest as advancing its economic development to ensure political stability and persisting leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and restricting autonomous actions within its western regions (Lubina, 2017, pp.86-87; Sauders, 2017, p.148). Resources, raw materials, and access to markets are a prerequisite for economic success. The BRI secures commodities i.a. in Central Asia and transports them and other goods via alternative, less vulnerable overland routes to China. This decreases the reliance on SLOCs traversing through i.a. the Malacca Strait, which China cannot defend in case of hostilities and grants the country independent access to markets (Rolland, 2017, pp.111-113). Consequentially, the BRI maintains economic success and sovereignty by logistical autonomy.

The BRI entails an enormous economic potential for Chinese products (Schortgen, 2018, p.26), due to the relative growth of the middle class and its consumption in Asia-Pacific, the Middle-East and Africa (Kharas, 2017, pp.13-16) which the BRI will reach, presumably increasing China’s share of global wealth and power. Moreover, the construction of the BRI creates demand for excessive Chinese concrete and steel production and is said to stimulate economic development (Bond, 2016, p.29), ensuring political stability and CCP’s retention of power. With the initiative, investments are undertaken in Western Chinese provinces and Central Asia, believing to spread prosperity due to economic development and free the troubled regions of separatism, terrorism and extremism (Huasheng, 2017, p.157; cited in: Lubina, 2017, p.237), protecting Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Even though the BRI brings sustainable economic benefits for participating countries (Indeo, 2018, p.137), it helps China to guarantee its survival, since receptivity of BRI states to U.S. influence declines and China gains more power over them. Although China claims to have no political aspirations to interfere in the internal matters of states, the sheer amount of investments and the construction of the BRI projects prospectively enlarges China’s impact on foreign policy orientations and decisions of BRI states. This is observed in Central Asia, where besides Russia’s influence is curtailed (ibid., p.138). Probably, the BRI has similar effects on other participating countries, limiting the influence of the United States or other incumbent states, while strengthening China’s influence and enlarging its power. Secondary, offensive realism declares that states must be wary of other states true intentions, therefore the success of the BRI depends on its perception as a genuine economic opportunity rather than a Trojan Horse increasing China’s geopolitical weight (Gao, 2018, pp.328-329). Hence, China preaches non-interference in internal matter of states, to achieve the successful implementation of the BRI and suppress U.S. influence. Beijing has learnt that its assertiveness negatively affects its relative power advantages (Sauders, 2014, p.162). It uses an inclusive language as deception and nonetheless expects smaller states to obey its wishes (Roy, 2013; Lubina, 2017, p.73).

Thomas Lairson (2018, pp.41-43) argues that the BRI emulates the Marshall Plan, which aided the United States to erect the transatlantic alliance, tied Europe to America and supported the construction of the liberal world order with Washington at its core. The rights, authority, privileges and roles Washington can demand for itself as the leader of this order underpins its hegemony. The bigger voting share it enjoys in the Bretton Wood institutions is one example (Ikenberry & Lim, 2017, p.6). The BRI presumably achieves a similar outcome for Beijing. Amplified commercial activities along the BRI and further factors drive the internationalisation of the Chinese currency (Overholt, Ma & Law, 2015, pp.132,1-16). In combination with the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the chances rise for China to reform the international monetary system (Ikenberry & Lim, 2017, pp.10-13), established around the Bretton Woods institutions. The BRI likely grants China further rights, privileges and authorities and facilitates “alternative political economy, development and governance paradigms” (Schortgen, 2018, p.27). Consequentially, China’s power increases by maximising its economic and institutional statecraft capabilities, eventually suspending U.S. dominance in the international order.

Concluding, the BRI ensure the survival of the Chinese state by reducing possible security threats and by offering an opportunity for Beijing to maximise its global power, while sustainably deny the United State to curtail its rise. Firstly, it minimises potential risks like commodity shortages and political instability through alternative trade routes and economic development. Secondly, Beijing gains leverage over participating countries, influencing their behaviour and reducing their receptivity to U.S. influence. Thirdly, the BRI is a pathway to establish an international order free of U.S. dominance, since it enables China to build economic and institutional statecraft capabilities. Taken together, this entails an erosion of U.S. power, shifting the distribution of power in China’s favour and ultimately causing U.S. hegemony to end. The BRI assures that the Washington has no longer the power to contain China.

4 Conclusion
To guarantee its own survival, according to offensive realism, China needs maximise its own power and end U.S. hegemony, so Washington can longer curtail its sovereignty and impede its rise. The analysis has shown that the BRI, despite its benefits for other countries, follows these premises. The maximisation of China’s power entails an erosion of U.S. power and its domination of the current international order. This leaves room for China to completely reform the international order. However, it is argued that China only seeks to “improve” it, where its interests are not met, since the country has profited greatly from the established order (Ikenberry & Lim, 2017; Heilmann et al., 2014, 1).

The paper fails to answer whether the conditions are promising enough for China to pursue hegemony. With the success of the BRI far from certain, it remains to be seen whether all objectives outlined in this paper will be achieved. Any degree of success increases China’s position and might enable Beijing to establish a hegemonic position. According to Marcin Kaczmarski, Beijing wishes to re-establish a “Concert of Great Powers”, and sees U.S. hegemony as “temporary abbreviation” (cited in: Lubina, 2017, pp.71-72), arguing against that China has dreams of becoming the global hegemon.

Offensive realism pays no relevance to unit level variables. However, Xi Jinping presidency and China’s state power probably have strong influences on China’s behaviour (Godement, 2013, pp.1-2; Lubina, 2017, p.63; Bremmer, 2017). The paper further neglects possible reactions from the United States. According to offensive realism, a strategy to balance China and maximise its own power would be expected. Furthermore, the BRI states are treated as one unit, even though their strategic importance to China probably varies. For some the BRI might be a Trojan Horse while for others it provides a pathway to economic development. A differentiated assessment would likely increase the accuracy and the complexity of the analysis.Annex
Pivot to Asia
To address regional stability, establish a balance of power, support economic development and to promote American values the Obama administration launched various policy initiatives. Initially, these were referred to as the “pivot to Asia” while later they were renamed to “rebalance to Asia”. Their aim was to increase and deepen the already important position the United States holds in Asia. The policy initiatives addressed three areas: security, economy and diplomacy. Addressing the complex security in the region, troops were restructured and broadly distributed and extended security arrangement with regional countries were signed. The Transpacific Partnership (TPP), which excluded China, e.g. falls under the economic initiatives outlined by the Obama Administration. Moreover, the United States reinforced its alliances and its engagement on multilateral levels through intensified diplomatic efforts. While most countries of Asia at least secretively welcomed the pivot/rebalancing policies, Beijing perceived it as “Cold-War-style” containment of China (Sutter, 2014, p. 99-101). According to Sun (2013), the pivot was seen as subverting China’s efforts to improve its position “in the East through strengthened military alliances, “sabotaging” China’s ties with ASEAN and undercutting China’s effort to lead the regional economic integration by pushing U.S.-centred and China-free Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

It is emphasised that China’s aggressiveness in the years prior to the “pivot” has directed the U.S. administration to these policies (Ross, 2012: Sutter, 2014, pp.94-95). According to Ross (2012), however, the “pivot” will further contribute to “Beijing’s insecurities and will only feed China’s aggressiveness, undermine regional stability and decrease the possibility of cooperation between Beijing and Washington.” Notably, the reinforced and expansive U.S. military engagement challenged and threatened China (ibid., 2012), and once more added on to the fear of encirclement (see below).

Encirclement Threat
In the view of Nathan and Scobell (2012), China believes it is encircled by an unusually high number of threats. These can be classified in four concentric rings. The first ring describes that Beijing thinks that its political stability and territorial integrity is endangered by numerous foreign forces. A second ring presents itself to Chinese elites in the borders of the country. Only Russia shares more borders with other countries. Five out of the 14 countries China maintains a common border with; it had a military conflict within the last seven decades. The third ring refers to the six geopolitical regions around China, that affect the country’s security. The fourth ring is comprised of countries beyond China’s neighbourhood and so far have played a role in China’s quest for commodities, “access to markets and investments; […] and to recruit allies for China’s positions on international norms and legal regimes.” (Nathan & Scobell, 2012).

The United States casts its shadow in all the of the four rings. Washington pressures China about its economic policies and sustains state-run and private projects, intending to manipulate China’s society and state politics. Moreover, Washington maintains security arrangements with various neighbouring states (Nathan & Scobell, 2012). Nathan and Scobell write that the United States (2012) “is the most intrusive outside actor in China’s internal affairs […] the largest naval presence in the East China and South China seas, the formal or informal ally of many of China’s neighbours and the primary framer and defender of existing international legal regimes.”

The NATO enlargement, interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, support of colour revolutions, economic benefits from promoting free trade and the U.S. dollar as key currency prove to China that the United States is a revisionist power, whose goal it is to modify the international order even further to its advantages (Nathan & Scobell, 2012). To facilitate a rising China, the authors (2012) suggest constructing a contemporary balance of power which sustains the current international order, but with a greater role for Beijing. According to them, there are good reasons for China to seek this outcome.

The BRI can be seen as facilitating such an outcome. Moreover, it lessens the encirclement threat as the BRI addresses all four rings.

Military and economic capacities
China enjoyed over three decades of rapid economic growth, “became the world’s largest manufacturer, largest trade and largest creditor nation” (Sutter, 2014, p.94) and has increased its military spending significantly and invested in modern military technology (ibid.; Sauders, 2014, p. 153-154). Overall, Beijing’s relative power has risen considerably (Nathan & Scobell, 2012). Graham Allison (2017, p.80) controversially argues that China equals the “present hegemon (the US)” (Lubina, 2017, p.86) in every arena. Nathan and Scobell (2012) on the contrary state that while China is undoubtedly a great power, its military so far is incapable of challenging U.S. military might. Further, a military conflict would entail huge costs (Sauders, 2014, p. 148). Most Chinese strategists believe the United States will continue to stay the global hegemon for some decades, even though first signs of erosion of U.S. leadership have been perceived (Scobell & Nathan, 2012). Similarly, Kenneth Waltz argues a shift from unipolarity to multipolarity in Asia is unavoidable (2000, p.32).
Sea Lanes of Communication
Chinese analysts suppose that strategically critical SLOCs like the Malacca Strait could be obstructed by the U.S. Navy in case of military or economic hostilities between the United States and its allies and China, making the country vulnerable as they depended on oil and metal ore transports by ship (Nathan & Scobell, 2012). The SREB obviates this.
Bretton Woods Institution
The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank Group and the regional multilateral development banks (i.a. Asian Development Bank) are part of the Bretton Woods institutions (The Bretton Woods Committee, 2018).
Asia Infrastructure Development Bank
The AIIB was officially founded in June 2015 with 50 countries signing the articles of agreement. Among them Germany and the United Kingdom (AIIB, 2015). The United States and Japan are not members of the AIIB (AIIB, n.d.). The establishment of the AIIB shows China’s dedication to ensuring bigger input in international financial governance (Schortgen, 2018, p.25).
Parallel structures
According to Heilmann et al. (2014), China is beginning to restructure the current international order by establishing and advocating parallel structure. With them China aims to achieve greater independence from U.S.-dominated institutions and tries to enlarge its influence globally. Even though China has set up parallel structure it performs an active role in the current order, and the authors come to the conclusion (p.1) that Beijing “is not seeking to demolish or exit from current international organizations and multilateral regimes. Preferably, it is constructing supplementary — in part complementary, in part competitive — channels for shaping the international order beyond Western claims to leadership.”. The following table shows the parallel and alternative structures China has launched.

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