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China and the new geopolitics

China's new Silk Road is presented as a technical investment project, but has political effects we cannot possibly overlook.


The material and territorial consequences of China One Belt One Road, also called "The New Silk Road," is incomprehensible, says Aihwa Ong, professor of cultural anthropology. China is going to "re-encode" the entire geopolitical landscape through investments in railways, road networks, deepwater ports, power plants and so-called Special Economic Zones spread across several continents. The big question is whether it will benefit the world, or benefit China only.

Ong has, from various vantage points – including Muslim women's factory work in Malaysia, Chinese diaspora in the upper economic strata and biotechnology in Asia – always researched what she calls "global switching points" (global assemblies). Now, she's exploring how infrastructural technologies are being used to "re-create China" in the country's efforts to implement "self-assertive interventions" beyond national borders.

The infrastructural state. The Silk Road project is about trade, about energy, about production conditions, about engineering. And then it's about politics. China needs to connect with existing and new transport and production hubs around the world, and no place is too inaccessible. Thus, one of the latest bud shootings is to incorporate the reconstruction of Syria into the One Belt One Road strategy, with historical reference to access to Europe and Africa through this old silk road over two millennia ago.

The level of ambition for the project is incomprehensible, says Ong, adding: "But Chinese are working fast." big cities.

"It's explosive, the changes that have happened there," says Ong. In 2014, the Chinese authorities announced a plan to make the city the hub for the Pan-Asian high-speed connection, which will link China, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, as well as expand Kunming's building stock by 40 percent over just a few years.

The Silk Road project is about trade, about energy, about production conditions, about engineering. And about politics.

As The Economist then noted: “China's largest cities can handle population growth to a large extent. The spread of concrete could prove to be a bigger problem. ”

Ong believes that China can be described as an "infrastructure state" on two levels: concrete construction and credit flows.

«The infrastructural state has been so expansive that right now there is an oversupply of credit, concrete and technology within China's borders. One of the aims of the Silk Road Initiative is thus to export part of this surplus capacity to poor states in the region. ”

Although One Belt One Road potentially covers most of the world – and Western observers are most concerned with the projects planned in Eastern European countries – Ong Southeast Asia is the first priority for China. Especially after the election of Trump and thus the US abandonment of boats Pivot to Matterthe strategy in general and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) specifically, the playing field has been left to China.

"Southeast Asia is China's backyard, that's how it looks," the author says, and in that backyard, China is "fully rolling out its infrastructural prowess."

Civilization boasts. The strategy was officially launched under the name "One Belt One Road" in May this year at a conference in Beijing, in which the economically strongest states in Southeast Asia, Singapore and Thailand, in parentheses noted, were not invited.

Poor countries leave economic zones and development corridors to foreign capital and crew.

"Here, President Xi Jinping presented the project through the account of Admiral Zheng He's expeditions to Southeast Asia and Africa over 500 years ago, which included establishing Chinese supremacy, symbolically and specifically," says Ong.

“Zheng He traveled around with his fleet to impress the world with gracious gifts and receive its tribute. As a form of civilizational boast. "

This "civilizational boast" has Xi Jinping now put on contemporary formula, and the first step is – as an extra story of history – to submit to ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations, now comprising ten countries), which in its time was formed as a anti-communist bloc.

While ASEAN has so far followed US norms and regulations for economic integration between countries, the region with the new US tones has become open to "Chinese intervention and the world of performances," says Aihwa Ong. She points out that China presents One Belt One Road as one win-winbut that, at best, it is an open question whether it really will be. In any case, it's about much more than China's infrastructure, says Aihwa Ong: "Now, as in Zheng He's time, it's not just about trade routes, but to a great extent also about culture and politics."

Gradually bent sovereignty. According to Aihwa Ong, the Silk Road, in its basic idea, is a materialization of China's goal of transforming the geopolitical space itself. She uses her starting point in anthropology and its recent interest in not only humans and their interactions, but also human-non-human interactions to analyze the Silk Road as "an infrastructural hub." At this juncture, contexts from different countries are brought together – and new opportunities arise. "The results of such a process are always unexpected," she notes.

The One Belt One Road machinery produces a constant redefinition of territorial boundaries and forms of sovereignty, she says, who believes that infrastructure can also be used to exert "immaterial power" with great potential.

“First, the neoliberalization of infrastructure allows China to transcend the state. Secondly, the Silk Road can be seen as a technology that re-territorialises politics in Southeast Asia. Poor countries leave economic zones and "development corridors" to foreign capital and manpower. By financing the construction of roads, railways and ports, the Silk Road makes other countries key to a China-oriented logistical system. Third: In Special Economic Zones, Chinese investors and developers come to control land and labor outside China's borders, creating the effect I have called 'degree-bent sovereignty' in the host country. ”

Comprehensive consequences. Namely, One Belt One Road is anything but "one road". The project includes at least 900 projects in at least 64 countries, which will cost at least $ XNUMX trillion. A lot of these projects were already underway or on the drawing board before the story of The New Silk Road was launched. Like China, it is by far not the only global player involved in connecting the world's nodes more effectively. The same is true for a large number of national governments, private companies and investment players such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. But these projects – and the existing infrastructure that China will draw on in its own projects – are overwritten by the powerful metaphor "One Belt One Road".

National governments and other actors in the countries in which the silk road projects take place will do well to set requirements and to define what they have and do not need.

In that light, the narrative must also be understood as an aspect of China's foreign policy, says Ong. “It is presented as a gracious gesture – as a development model, a financing model of projects that the countries concerned need. However, the criterion is not what the countries concerned need, but what China needs. It is not just a technical project, it is obviously a project with extensive political effects, ”she says.

“It is changing the whole political terrain. Changing issues of ownership, of land rights, of labor rights, ”says the author, referring to, among other things, the Special Economic Zones (SEZ), which – like power plants – is a key element of One Belt One Road. These zones are typically not owned by national companies in the country in which they are located, but by foreign investors – in this case Chinese – and are typically exempt from parts of national law (for example in relation to working time rules) and enjoy special privileges (e.g. in relation to taxation).

Rising China. According to Ong, Southeast Asia has long been a laboratory for developing new economic models – so far primarily the West's laboratory, but in recent years also a laboratory for Asian economies on the rise, such as China.

Originally, SEZ's idea emerged under Deng Xiaoping's controlled opening of the Chinese economy and, from the 1980s, was initially used within China's own planning economy as a controlled capitalist experiment. The first SEZs were set up in Guangdong under the supervision of Deng Xiaoping's right-hand man, Gu Mu, who was deployed as head of the newly created Special Economic Zones Office.

In these zones, the state, in cooperation with foreign investment, constitutes an "engine for capitalist activities", as Aihwa Ong puts it. With One Belt One Road, China's infrastructural expansion – through an interweaving of the Chinese state and capitalist forces – will "re-territorialize places currently coded as located in other countries".

"I'm not saying that the Silk Road is a problem or a wrong project, I'm just saying that national governments and other actors in the countries running the Silk Road projects will do well to make demands. They will do well to define what it is that they need and what they do not need. Otherwise, it will only be about what serves China's interests, ”says the cultural anthropologist.

As for President Xi Jinping's allegory of Zheng He and his expeditions as a picture of the One Belt One Road strategy, Ong highlights a crucial difference between then and now: Although half a millennium the Admiral expected to receive the world's proper tribute, wherever he came forward, Zheng Hes expeditions made no claim to territories, and established no special economic zones.

Shipping Costs keynote at the 10th International Convention of Asia Scholars, held in Chiang Mai, Thailand in July 2017, she concluded with the words: “It would be desirable to One Belt One Road became an umbrella under which poorer countries can seek shelter, rather than an uncontrolled squid, a machine that swallows fuel, or with its suction cups draws nourishment from other countries to maintain Rising China. "

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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