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What’s wrong with development? The geopolitics of Belt and Road Initiative

The Belt and Road Initiative seeks to bring development to the world. Why is this a problem for the US and some of its Western allies? KEITH LAMB explains

THE Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a series of land and sea infrastructure projects that will connect the “World Island” that is Africa and Eurasia. Should the West join, then railway tunnels, under both the Gibraltar and Bering Straits, will link up the world.

However, so far, the West has projected its worst history onto the BRI, depicting it as a Chinese neo-imperial plan to dominate the world through “debt-trap diplomacy.”

70 per cent of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota being leased out for 99 years to a Chinese venture is widely seen as proof of this. Largely unreported is that the Chinese debt still stands because this soft debt is not the problem: Hambantota was leased out to pay back the private capital lenders who comprise the majority of Sri Lanka’s creditors.

Western apprehension over the BRI is sold as concern over human rights. However, even recent history shows that material priorities undermine the smoke and mirrors of human-rights discourse.

For example, the Western destruction of Libya and Iraq, labelled as “interventions,” which linguistically conceals tragic human-rights atrocities, was paradoxically justified through liberal human-rights narratives, much of which turned out to be atrocity propaganda.

In fact, Western support for jihadi groups in Libya and the invasion of Iraq launched from Saudi Arabia, a state with a worse human-rights record than Saddam’s Iraq, belies human-rights explanations.

While both states had oil wealth to be plundered, Libya and Iraq also presented a systemic threat to US hegemony. Both challenged the US’s exorbitant dollar privilege. Gaddafi sought to create a gold-backed African Dinar and Saddam had started selling oil in Euros.

The carnage caused in both countries and others across the world is flippantly dismissed as unintended consequences to what were otherwise good intentions. However, the strategy of keeping the world in a state of uneven development through war and sovereign interference is no accident. It is precisely this status quo that the BRI resists.

Having a hegemonic power like the US and previously Britain presents a systemic disincentive to developing the majority of the earth. This is because both powers are geographically disconnected from the continents they seek to administer — and this fact was also the case for previous European colonialists too.

European empires differed from those that came before them. They were transcontinental rather than being in one continuous civilizational space. They succeeded because they possessed superior war and naval technology.

Consequently, Western monopoly capitalism, intertwined with colonialism, was built on controlling the seas. This is not just a historical fact it is a current reality too. The US, with its invisible neo-colonial empire, is far from the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants on the World Island. As such, it dominates largely through naval projection.

As the majority of trade is still done by boat, he who controls the seas controls the world. Development of the inlands, which would bring about poverty relief to the mass of humanity, would create boundless competition to naval hegemony.

Furthermore, inland development away from sea routes is harder to dominate, and economic expansion there leads to augmenting the military strength of states which could then resist hegemonic belligerence. Therefore, both Britain and the US have sought to privilege their sea power and prevent continental competition.

Britain fearing losing its monopoly through the Suez Canal restricted German economic expansion across Eurasia. The building of the Berlin-Baghdad railway, just at a time when oil was discovered in Iran, was an underlying factor for the outbreak of WWI. In Eurasia imperial Russia was always frustrated by Britain’s “great game.”

The US buttresses countries around the edges of states which are capable of developing the World Island. For example, with the rise of the USSR and the Peoples Republic of China,  Germany, Japan and the “Tiger economies” received preferential economic treatment.

After the collapse of the USSR, when the Washington Consensus inflicted deprivation upon the Russian people, US relations with Russia were first rate. However, today Russia, though capitalist, is no longer a basket case and consequently faces the US’s ire. The privileging of sea power and opposition to continental development is likewise played out in the Nord Stream pipeline saga.

From the late 1970s, when China was poor, although it was governed by the Communist Party it also enjoyed positive relations with the US: it was assumed that integration into the existing liberal capitalist world order would inevitably lead to the collapse of Communist rule.

However China, though accepting the Western-created multilateral order and the WTO trading system, now also faces the indignation of the current US naval hegemon.

China has become a technological powerhouse and broken free from the role assigned to it of producing the world’s “tat.” It has proven that capital overseen by state power produces rapid development which defies the order of uneven development to the disadvantage of the inlands.

Unlike the US, China is firmly entrenched within the World Island and so cannot follow a similar naval hegemonic strategy. China borders powerful nuclear states and consequently truculent actions lead to chaos in its own backyard.

China’s development is founded on peaceful trading even with advanced states like Britain and the US, rather than colonial aggression. Accordingly, China is cognisant that development for others, even powerful states with differing ideologies to its own, can be beneficial.

However, China, having been colonised from the sea and now surrounded on the “first island chain” by US bases, is only too aware that it must seek a strategy to counter de-developmental bids by naval hegemony.

Subsequently, the BRI for China, which creates both land and sea trade routes that are independent of US control, is a hedge against a US approach that seeks to prevent China’s growth and maintain uneven global development to the advantage of the current order.

This sentiment enjoys democratic support from the global community. Currently, 138 states, largely from the South, have signed up to the BRI. In addition, states in Eastern Europe and Italy have also joined.

For the context of China beyond resisting the US, the BRI is also premised on socialist principles set out by Deng Xiaoping. He always demanded that China must eventually see even development in its poor east even if that meant, through engagement with Western capitalism, improving China’s western seaboard first.

Indeed, the BRI being part of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and “Xi Jinping Thought” purposely seeks innovative ways to co-opt capital through inter-governmental planning, for the purpose of long-term sustainable development. As such, the BRI transcends short-term profit-seeking motives and many of the BRI projects will not see returns for decades.

Europe on the other side of Eurasia and to the North of Africa, has the opportunity to rejuvenate itself through new trade routes. Eastern European states, which did not rely on sea power for their growth, already understand this better than Western Europe.

The US, though rich, is lagging behind in basic infrastructure which could be remedied through BRI co-operation. In addition, the US with its technological prowess could easily take a leading position in the BRI and become a driving force in developing “its continent,” as well as the world, rather than a driving force for “intervention.”

For the populations in the West divided by infighting over identity politics the recognition that uneven development represents the primary global contradiction has the potential to create unity that transcends divisive ethnic tensions and the ever-deepening migration crisis.

Mass immigration arises from the desperate fleeing poverty and war caused by the current liberal naval hegemonic order. A developed, multi-polar world, which the BRI seeks to create, would fashion democratic globalization where the movement of people becomes a choice rather than an imperative.

The BRI then is not a neo-imperialist venture. Development is in opposition to the hegemonic tool of uneven development and even development creates the basis for meaningful democracy at home and abroad.

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