Donald Trump’s temper tantrum at the Group of 7 nations summit on June 9, where he insulted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and retroactively withdrew US support for the summit’s final communiqué, was only the latest instance of his ham-handed approach to international affairs. While Trump seems eager to undermine the US-led Western alliance and fears abound of Russia’s growing influence, the power to watch may in fact be China, argues Federico Rampini. Reporting for the left-of-center Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Rampini has been a foreign correspondent in Paris, Beijing, and New York and authored 20 books. In this excerpt from Le linee rosse (“The Red Lines”), he explains how the massive public-works program China is sponsoring throughout Asia is projecting economic and political power, just as the United States did after World War II—and supplanting the American Century with a future made in China.—Mark Hertsgaard
Chinese president Xi Jinping wants to reassure us: His China is a benevolent power. It is only interested in foreign exchanges that deliver reciprocal benefits—win-wins, where all parties come out ahead. Xi’s model for this vision of China’s international relations is the archetypal Silk Road, a great commercial thruway that generates wealth along its entire length.
“The Silk Road” is the term German geographer Ferdinand von Richtholfen coined in 1877 to describe an ancient reality: the commercial and caravan route that connected the Mediterranean with central Asia and the Far East since before the Roman empire. It’s the road Marco Polo, son of Venetian merchants, traveled in the 13th century to reach Cathay, the China of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan, as described in his book, The Travels of Marco Polo.
The New Silk Road China envisions today comes under the name “The Belt And Road Initiative” and is seen as the foundation of a new form of globalization—globalization 2.0, if you will. One trillion dollars is a conservative estimate for what China is investing to construct basic industrial infrastructure—cargo trains, ports, pipelines, electrical lines—in countries from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia to Central Europe. This titanic public-works program, whose massive costs are being paid mostly by China itself (albeit with considerable public debt), will boost China’s exports and gain preferred access to the natural resources of the countries involved. But the New Silk Road is not intended solely to expand China’s economic reach; it is also meant as an alternative to the global leadership the United States has long provided. With the American Century coming to a close, China is proposing to replace it with this Pacific model.
Today the West is turning its back on multilateralism and globalization, and not only because of Donald Trump. Even before the 2016 US elections, the victory of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom marked the start of a retreat from the post–World War II era of favoring open markets. As soon as Trump arrived in the White House, he tore up the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, the treaty with Asia his predecessor, Barack Obama, worked years to achieve. Meanwhile, the counterpart treaty between the United States and the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, had already expired, again not because of Trump: It was the Europeans who no longer wanted that agreement.
Trump also rejects other aspects of his country’s globalist tradition, raising questions about the future US role in international trade. Seizing a battle cry of the left, Trump repeatedly told Americans during the 2016 campaign, let’s quit being the world’s policeman, let’s not kid ourselves about exporting democracy; if there’s a country that needs nation building, it’s the United States—our infrastructure is falling apart. These were irrefutable statements, but they signaled a break with 70 years of US foreign policy.
It’s not that China is less nationalistic, or more protectionist, than the United States. Rather, Xi Jinping is concealing China’s national interests within a global vision that offers benefits to other nations. Beijing claims that its investments in the New Silk Road have created 180,000 jobs in the 65 participating countries, countries that account for 62 percent of the world’s population and more than a third of its economic output.
China’s global vision, like that of the United States after the Second World War, includes not only highways and airports but also institutions of governance. The United States of Franklin Roosevelt designed the foundation of the first era of globalization at Bretton Woods in 1944, creating the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, followed by the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs in 1947. Roosevelt’s successors oversaw the birth of the European Common Market in 1957. And the United States used the Marshall Plan’s economic aid to Europe not only to connect allied nations to Washington politically but also to provide outlets for American exports.
China took a first step in this direction by opening the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2016. This multilateral development bank is state-controlled but open to private capital and will finance infrastructure investments throughout Asia. President Xi has already enlisted the major European countries in the bank’s work, while the Uunited States is not participating. And just as the Marshall Plan did for the United States, the New Silk Road opens other avenues for China. Building the New Silk Road includes constructing grand public works that require huge amounts of cement and steel, commodities where China suffers from overproduction. The bank and the New Silk Road are a means of relaunching China’s economic growth, which is threatened at home by speculative bubbles, failed banks, and an aging population. And the initiative is accompanied by the internationalization of China’s currency, as the IMF has promoted the renminbi to the club of global exchange currencies along with the dollar, the euro, and the yen.
The American Century had its doctrine, which proclaimed the superiority of a system that combined a market economy with liberal democracy and promised shared benefits to all participants. But today the West is pervaded by doubts and disappointments: globalization has brought growing inequality; the middle class is collapsing; young people have lesser prospects than their elders did. China, though, sees the world the other way around: Globalization has reduced the economic distance between China and the West and created a new middle class of more than half a billion people.
Xi openly asserts the superiority of his model of authoritarianism over the chaos of Western democracy. But are the massive investments China is making in the New Silk Road financially sustainable? Beijing has a public debt higher than that of the United States, yet it proceeds. Are these investments, and the economic activity they stimulate in China and in the recipient countries, compatible with environmental sustainability? And where in Xi’s vision is there space for workers’ rights?
Europe, which bitterly resisted the globalism of Obama, will have to be even more vigilant towards the Chinese model. The New Silk Road promises to have significant economic ramifications for the Mediterranean and, specifically, ports in Italy such as Genoa and Trieste, as well as the coastal zones of the Middle East and Africa. The roads, highways, railways, and ports the Chinese are constructing also strengthen China’s geopolitical interests in central Asia, creating a dependency in Muslim nations that might be tempted to support independence for Uighurs and other ethnic minorities.
It is only nations in decline that yearn to have stable borders, declared Karl Haushofer, the German geographer celebrated and condemned for inspiring the geopolitical vision of Nazism. Only decadent civilizations seek to protect themselves with fortifications, Haushofer maintained. Nations that are “virile”—which is to say, nations that are rising powers—build roads, not walls.
China today is showing signs of exactly that sort of “virility.” In the ancient past, it constructed the Great Wall, only to discover that such a wall did not protect China from barbarian invasions. In a more recent past, China conquered a semi-desert region inhabited by ethnic groups including the Tibetans, the Uighurs, and the Mongols, creating a red line that protected the heart of the Han nation. Now, atop that defensive red line, another red line is being overlaid: the New Silk Road.
Translated from the Italian by Mark Hertsgaard.