Belt and Road Initiative: Creating a smoother path

2018 marks the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Belt and Road Initiative. The experience over the past five years has shown that the initiative is not necessarily smooth sailing, nor is it something that can be built overnight. How we overcome the challenges in the future will greatly test the strength and stamina of China’s foreign strategy.

Building the Belt and Road Initiative is a step-by-step process from concept to action, from high-level initiative to stratified implementation, from bilateral cooperation to global summit, and from one country's claim to being included in the UN documents, demonstrating China's confidence and determination to advance the initiative. After five years, the foundation of the initiative has been established on the basis of the domestic institutional system and the international multilateral cooperation.

From the perspective of domestic institutional construction, the Belt and Road Initiative has an obvious trajectory from top to down, pilot to large area, and top-level design to progressive advancement approaches. The initiative was proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, and it was included in the revised Constitution of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2017, during which China has confirmed that it was not just an initiative, but also an international cooperation process. After four years, the domestic institutional system has been established, laying a solid foundation for the next step.

From the perspective of international multilateral cooperation, the development of the Belt and Road Initiative reflects China’s rapid transition from a participant in the international system to a provider of public products, and it has been gradually accepted by the global community. By the end of 2017, China had signed 100 cooperation documents on the Belt and Road Initiative with 86 countries and international organizations. More than 7,000 trains have completed their transportation between China and Europe, and a large number of cooperative projects are being fully promoted. The Belt and Road Initiative has become a topic that must be discussed in almost all bilateral talks for China and multilateral cooperation occasions, and an essential part of China's diplomatic concepts and policies.

With the inclusion into the CPC Constitution, the Belt and Road Initiative has developed from a national initiative, government planning, and policy action into the will of the CPC, and only a basic national policy has such strategic status in China, demonstrating that those who question the sincerity of the Belt and Road Initiative are contrary to the facts. But another question gradually arose from the outside world: How long will it take for the Belt and Road Initiative to be accomplished?

On June 28, 2014, the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China organized a forum on the future construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt, which was the earliest domestic large-scale international think tank conference on the Belt and Road Initiative, and released a research report gathering the wisdom of nine well-known research institutions and 20 famous experts. The report provided a three-step strategy with a time span of 35 years for the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt, and predicted it will be accomplished in 2049. Following the release of the research report, several well-known scholars also expounded a similar viewpoint that the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative will need more than 30 years.

It now appears that the sustainability of the Belt and Road Initiative depends on three aspects.

First, it depends on China’s sustainable development and the expansion of the country’s influence abroad. More and more foreigners are fascinated by the great achievements China has made in the past 40 years of reform and opening-up, and have made the idea of interconnected communication an important option for their countries. Still, we should have a strategic understanding of the arduousness and difficulty of the great rejuvenation of China, because the rise of a country is never a smooth road.

Second, it depends on the enhancement of bilateral relations between China and other countries, especially the establishment of high-level strategic mutual trust.

Third, it depends on the promotion of different projects in different countries. Calling for the enhanced communication in five areas, the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative needs to optimize the supply of products and services and increase labor productivity, which are connected to the progress of supply-side structural reforms of the countries. The countries involved in the initiative are facing different resource situations and capital risks as well as different government authorities, and it takes time for them to deal with the excess production capacity and structural transformation.

The Belt and Road Initiative is a long-term and significant initiative with far-reaching international and domestic influence, facing opportunities but also challenges, so that its advancement should have long-term arrangements and strategic planning.

In terms of macro policies, it is necessary to maintain long-term strategic patience and perseverance and focus on improving the quality of public goods. China should strive for long-term construction to demonstrate its advantages and eliminate internal and external doubts, and think carefully in attracting countries to join the Belt and Road Initiative. We should have a top-level design to strengthen the Belt and Road Initiative to connect to international development organizations such as the Asian Investment Bank, providing stable and reliable funding for infrastructure construction projects and trade flow as well as promoting the use of the renminbi in related investment and trade activities of the Belt and Road Initiative.

In government implementation, it is necessary to carry out long-term arrangements on building up human resources as well as standardize the competitive behavior of participants. China has promised to provide 10,000 training places for the countries involved in the initiative in the coming five years from May 2017 and dispatch 50 senior economic and trade experts to provide intellectual support and policy consulting services. Chinese government should also focus on cultivating its own talent with full understanding of the countries involved in the initiative, helping to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts in the decision-making process. Strengthening the exchanges of think tanks also helps reduce the cognitive biases of leaders and intellectuals in various countries. In addition, the government should focus on regulating unfair competition in the foreign investment of companies and local governments, and making overall plans for the interests of the regions to ensure effective implementation of the rules.

In addition, it is necessary to encourage Chinese enterprises to deepen their understanding of the countries involved in the initiative and benefit the investment regions. Enterprises need to actively explore trade and investment cooperation, avoid using corrupt means in competition and avoid harming the interests of our own companies and the effectiveness of the Belt and Road Initiative. Faced with possible security and political risks, enterprises should strengthen their risk assessments. Meanwhile, they should also reinforce training for personnel in Belt and Road Initiative countries. Plus, whether in investment or trade, Chinese companies should strive to settle in local areas, pay more attention to the requests of locals, and contribute to the local community, thus laying the foundation for long-term economic and trade cooperation.

The author is the executive dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.

Editor: 曹家宁