Foreword 1 by Russell Belk


The Belt and Road Initiative is a project of such historical, cultural, geographic, economic, and strategic significance that it is impossible to describe and analyze in a single volume thoroughly.  This book makes no pretense of doing that.  As the subtitle suggests, it presents a Chinese perspective by a scholar whose life has been spent between China, the United States, and Canada. Together with his anthropological credentials, this places Robert Tian in a unique position to clarify the Chinese government’s and Chinese people’s perspectives on this grand project. His collaboration with Chen Gang deepens and magnifies the Chinese perspective.

       The oft-made comparison to the Marshall Plan implemented by the U.S. after World War II is useful, despite the many differences between the two initiatives as outlined by Tian and Chen and as discussed by Alf Walle in his Forward. Both were or are planned by rising world powers to solidify allegiances with nation-states that could assure their ultimate power and security. But whereas the U.S. was seeking to reanimate the well-developed if war-ravished states of Western Europe, the Chinese are seeking to animate the less-developed if war-torn states of Africa, the Middle East, parts of Europe, and parts of Asia. Moreover, the cultures of the countries touched by the Belt and Road are vastly different not only from China but also from each other. However, the realignment of regional loyalties due to financial and political entanglements is similar to the obligations the U.S. sought to build with Western Europe in its Cold War with the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Cuba.

       Perhaps a more apt analogy than the Marshall Plan might be the spread of European colonialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In these more aggressive forays, European states launched initiatives into Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia in an effort that was, in some cases, nearly as exploitative as slavery – an institution with which it overlapped. The Chinese B&R initiative is not aggressive or religious as were most European colonialist exploits, and it does not attempt to take control of any of the nations involved. As Tian and Chen rightly emphasize, it uses soft power and digital, monetary, and commercial means to extend its influence. But make no mistake, the B&R is not motivated by pure altruism. This great initiative is shaping the future world order at a time when it appears that the U.S. and China are on the brink of entering a Cold War.

       Interesting comparisons might be made between the B&R initiative and the way China is dealing with cultural and political conflicts within Asia. This includes its dealings with Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, the South China Seas, Taiwan, and India. Soft power only goes so far.  Military, police, internment/re-education, investment, Han settlers, diplomacy, propaganda, surveillance, and industrial development are all among the techniques used in these cases. There is some overlap with the techniques used in the B&R, especially investment, diplomacy, industrial development, and propaganda. But it is not far-fetched to wonder whether others of these techniques may be employed in the future.

       This may sound like a more Western perspective than the Chinese Perspective delivered so well here. It is also speculative about how the battle for global dominance may play out with an ascendant China and a declining America. Still, I think it appropriately raises a more aggressive possible future scenario than seen in some parts of the book. For instance, the book states that:

The goal of the socialist market economy is to ensure that the country is prosperous, and the people are well-off and healthy with better rights and interests, and that all Chinese people live in a safe and beautiful countryside.

Except for better rights and interests, I do not doubt that this is true, if for no other reason than that these conditions are necessary for political stability within China. But what I am trying to suggest is that in order to achieve these goals for China and Chinese people, it may be necessary to compromise on achieving some of these goals for those in countries through which the Belt and Road and Maritime Silk Road initiatives pass.

       Much is at stake here. These initiatives involve more than 60 countries and two-thirds of the world’s population. They also affect the health of the Chinese economy. And the Belt and Road and Maritime Silk Road initiatives can potentially create an economic boom in all parts of the world. The global financial crisis of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 have been barriers to their progress, but not insurmountable roadblocks. Indebted both economically and morally, the nations directly affected will tell the tale. Can the B&R tide lift all ships? Could it sink some ships? We shall see. The ideas discussed here offer some insights.

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