X Close

The jaw-dropping scale of China’s global ambition Five hundred years ago the West remade the world — now it’s China’s turn

Credit: China Photos / Getty

Credit: China Photos / Getty

December 19, 2018   4 mins

The Strait of Malacca is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. It runs between the Malaysia and Singapore on one side and the Indonesian island of Sumatra on the other. The reason why it’s so important is because it’s the shortest route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans – it’s how oil gets from the Middle East to the energy-hungry economies of East Asia, and how most of the industrial exports of the latter get to Europe and everywhere in between.

But what if there were a shorter route? One could be created by building a canal across Thailand’s Kra Isthmus. This wouldn’t be as big a shortcut as the Suez or Panama canals, but the savings would still be considerable – reducing the trans-oceanic journey by 1,200 kilometres. Vast sums in fuel costs could saved on every trip – hundreds of thousands of dollars for the biggest vessels.

Of course, the civil engineering challenges would be daunting – not to mention the financial, environmental and political obstacles. However, this is just sort of game-changing investment that China’s Belt and Road initiative is designed to take on.

In a piece for Foreign Policy, Bruno Maçães speculates as to what else the initiative might have achieved by by 2049 (the hundredth anniversary of People’s Republic):

“A bridge crossing the Caspian Sea—125 miles, from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan—has made road transport between Europe and China fast and easy, changing old mental maps that separated continents… In Africa a high-speed railway connects the two coasts, traversing Djibouti, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Cameroon in under twenty hours. Trade between Africa, Asia, and South America increasingly uses this route.”

Even if the Belt and Road ends up skipping the very most ambitious challenges, it will lay down a new global infrastructure whose impact will go well beyond commerce alone.

When European explorers, starting with the Portuguese, established global trade routes from the 15th century onwards, they didn’t just move cargo around the world – they mobilised money, power and culture. Furthermore, because they controlled the routes, they controlled the terms of exchange (in their own favour, of course).

Trade, as much as the military might that followed in its wake, was instrumental the global triumph of the West. It would therefore be naive not to see the historical significance of what China is building beyond its borders today.

It’s certainly not lost on Bruno Maçães, though he’s not predicting the total eclipse of the West:

“The West will diminish in reach and influence, but 30 years from now it will continue to offer a powerful alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, even if it may also be expected to evolve in response to the Chinese challenge.

“The problem for now is to determine the core of the new Chinese world picture and identify the main traits which it will come to impress upon the whole. The Belt and Road Initiative may never become universal—just as the West never became universal—but in some areas it will rule unimpeded, and different shades of influence will be felt everywhere.”

So, what he calls “the new Chinese world order” will coexist with the western world order – both competing and cooperating with it, but most crucially providing a distinct alternative.

Some of the differences are obvious – not least in respect to democracy and human rights. Others may be less apparent to us, but are also of great importance. In many ways Chinese society is more dynamic that our own, for instance with respect to technology:

“The Chinese made 50 times more mobile payments in 2016 than U.S. consumers did, tripling to $5.5 trillion in China while U.S. payments only grew 39 percent, to $112 billion. China’s order will be one of fast economic and social change, much more at ease with its costs than Western societies at present. Visions of the future will be its main currency and symbols of distinction.”

Fifty times more mobile payments – that’s an astounding gap. But it’s not just the extent of digitisation that separates China from the West, but the framework of values within which it’s taking place. Maçães points out that the Chinese model of governance rejects the “Enlightenment ideals of transparency and public knowledge.” Everything that we fear about the control of big tech over our data, our privacy and our lives, also applies in China, but to the nth degree – and not just China, but everywhere that the Chinese way of doing things is likely to prevail.

He argues that the West will have to “evolve in response to the Chinese challenge”, but how? Beyond the bits of government that specialise in such things, and the western businesses and the occasional NGO with a direct interest – who is engaging with these great matters?

Not public opinion, that’s for sure. Compare the high profile reaction to the Trump travel ban with the response to the Chinese government’s repression of the Muslim Uighur minority. One can condemn Trump’s actions and language, but why does the mass internment and ‘re-education’ of perhaps one million Chinese Muslims excite so little attention?

Western progressives are almost exclusively focused on abuses of power perpetrated within, and by, the West; and, in their minds, that can be justified on the assumption that, whatever happens elsewhere in the world, it is the West that is the ultimate driver of global change.

But if that were ever true, it isn’t anymore.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

1 Comment
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

Since joining, I have come to appreciate UnHerd very much. Essays, on all major issues are the proverbial breath of fresh air counterbalancing the foul totalitarian, anti-democratic [in reality anti-Western, anti-American, antisemitic] Leftist /Islamist orthodoxy quite pervasive today in many of the digital and traditional media and particularly in most universities of the Free World – from the UK, through Europe, the US and Canada to Israel. At this point, Liberal Democracy faces two concomitant major totalitarian challenges: the unholy Leftist/Islamist “alliance” mentioned above, and Mainland China.
In the past forty years, China has morphed from Maoist communism to ultra- nationalistic [Confucian] Fascism – in a process started by Deng Xiaoping and brought to its present stage since 2012 with the takeover by Never-Elected- Strongman-for-Life (since 2018) Xi Jinping. I see today’s China as a case of “History Repeated” – the “reincarnation” in both domestic and foreign policy – of German Fascism ( but “with Chinese characteristics for the new era” in Xi-ite parlance). The Fascist designation is purely descriptive: after all the one and only difference between Communism and Fascism is that the former does not allow private property. In all other respects – from the one and only, un-elected , but perpetually governing political party , through police and military serving not the nation but the “Communist” Party [ by now a fraudulent name since membership includes billionaires] , re-education and compulsory work camps for political dissidents to which Beijing – representing a tradition where Religion – always non-monotheistic- has been subservient to the State – has added the “Sinicization” campaign of Muslim minorities – especially the Uighurs and the compulsory harvesting and sale of organs of Falun Gong practitioners. Beijing’s State Capitalism (which Deng of “Truth from Facts” fame launched and falsely named “socialist market economy”) has reached its “German” stage under Xi Jinping – the “People’s Leader” [ the Chinese equivalent of Führerprinzip ] who ““ having exclusive hold on any and all levers- has the last word in all major companies – state or private.
Beijing foreign policy ““ for the past decade under the cryptic designation of Critical Areas [Heshin Li’i] line, regionally and globally – is aggressively [not assertively] imperialistic and highly reminiscent of Germany’s Lebensraum. All tools ““ military, political ,espionage, propaganda, media, cultural – are deployed in a relentless and concomitant expansionist pursuit. The AIIB and the BRI ( as well as the loan trap tactic) are the infrastructure arm of Xi Beijing’s regional and global domination scheme ( in Africa colonialist as well, given the one million Chinese permanent settlers already there, an issue brilliantly covered by Howard French). To counterbalance the Xi-ite onslaught , Japan has put in place the Quality Infrastructure Investment (QII) framework , while the US launched its own Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD). The UK, Canada, and other democracies should have abstained from joining the AIIB and instead given preference to Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s FOIP [ Free and Open Indo-Pacific] multilateral policy. It’s not too late to change course. The impetus should be Xi Beijing’s downright inhumane moves on COVID19 ““ from hiding the incident, through delaying its full disclosure to the world (with the deplorable cooperation of the WHO), and the attempt to blame the US for the pandemic, to the present ghastly “Xi saves China and the world” worldwide propaganda campaign. Be it the 2019 Wuhan (in fact it is three cities Wuchang, Hankou, Hanyang famous as the site of the 1911 republican revolution) Virus or any other crises in the past and the future, the totalitarian Beijing regime’s behaviour is reflected in the acronym BAABU [Blame Anybody and Anything But Us]. In light of the present circumstances I wonder if going forward, Brits and people in other democratic nations (excluding most university students) would be inspired by Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World or Orwell’s 1984.