JEAN – PIERRE LEHMANN. Conspicuous Western & Japanese Absence from Belt & Road Initiative Summit is a Big Mistake

May 17, 2017

The conspicuous absence of the heads of state from the major Western economic powers and Japan at the 14/15 May Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in Beijing is a big mistake and a missed opportunity for enhancing dynamic and cooperative globalisation. 

Some perspectives on China and the World

I live in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is well known among many Chinese as the city in which is located the International Olympic Committee (IOC). My flat is near the Olympic Museum and when I am here on weekends, I often walk through the Olympic Museum Park down to the lake, as I did this last Saturday. There were – as there invariably have been ever since the Beijing Olympic Games – busloads and busloads and busloads of Chinese tourists. More Chinese seem to visit the Olympic Museum in Lausanne than from any other country. This would have been unfathomable when I moved to Lausanne in 1997, twenty years ago.

It is in fact one of many illustrations of China’s most awesome achievement over recent decades: the lifting of hundreds-of-millions from poverty and the creation of a vast new urban middle class. As The Economist recently noted: “In 1981, 88% of Chinese (and 96% of rural Chinese) lived below the poverty line; in 2013, only 2% of Chinese were extremely poor.” That is worthy of global respect and admiration. If only other poor countries, notably India, could achieve something even remotely comparable. There is far more to explore than to deplore in China’s recent ascent.

China’s achievement is all the more impressive in that it was not only unprecedented, but also unexpected. The often proclaimed “era of humiliation” – from the first Opium War in 1839 to Liberation in 1949 – was no myth, but very much of a reality. Though China was not colonised by any single power, as, say, India way by Britain and Indonesia by the Netherlands, it was what Sun Yat-Sen termed a “poly-colony” – ie, gang-raped.

While the rising dragon is clearly no sweet pussycat, in comparison to other risen industrial powers – notably Britain, France, the US, the Soviet Union and Japan – it has been pacific. Thousands and thousands of Chinese come to visit the Louvre in Paris these days, but to gape at the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces of art, not to pillage and burn it down as French troops (in cahoots with the British) did to the Summer Palace in Beijing.  In 1950, the newly liberated People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet, which was reprehensible, but so did Britain invade Tibet (1903/04), not to mention roughly half-the-planet conquered and subjected by the empire over which the sun never set. In its wars against China, Japan is estimated to have caused some thirty-million deaths, along with multiple mutilations, tortures and rapes. I am not aware of a single Japanese killed by Chinese troops in the course of China’s recent rise.

While the US presents itself as the great global moraliser, it seems to forget that its rise to great power status included, among other things, the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of Africans, wars against its Latin American neighbours, and the conquest of the Philippines – with possibly half-a-million or more Philippino men, women and children killed. While China went to war against Vietnam in 1979 (and lost!), in terms of crimes against humanity it was nothing compared to the war against Vietnam (and Laos) waged (and lost) by the US. Seemingly addicted to belligerence, there has been this century the US’ illegal war against Iraq with all the carnage that ensued.

China, Global Governance and Global Rule-Setting

All this, needless to say, is not to suggest that it is now China’s turn to invade, conquer and pillage. Though China’s 2005 pledged “peaceful rise” seems more illusory with each passing year, it would be in the world’s best interests if it could be achieved. Indeed, the implications of the alternatives are cataclysmic. However, in the process the West and Japan should be conscious of the inevitable scars China has from the past exploitation and humiliation and thus refrain from taking the hypocritical high ground which seems to be common China policy currency.

It is especially important that China be accommodated to and engaged in the institutional framework of global governance; and that initiatives for enhancing trade and investment, such as BRI, be welcomed rather than rebuffed. Yet it is the opposite that has been happening. As Silvia Menegazzi has stated in arguing why the EU must engage with the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), “the decision to launch the AIIB came as a direct result of China’s growing frustration over only playing a marginal role within the existing international financial system”. This is true of the IMF and the World Bank. As to the WTO, the death of the Doha Round is in great part due to the inability of the erstwhile-established leaders of the global trading system – the so-called Quad, consisting of Canada, the EU, Japan and the US – to integrate China. Instead, the US and Japan proceeded to create their own initiative, TPP – from which China was visibly excluded; this way, as they claimed, “we will write the rules, rather than let the Chinese do so”. Surely, the appropriate, constructive and dynamic approach would have been to write the new rules together: to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Not only did the Japanese-American alliance seek to exclude China by setting up TPP, but when the Chinese launched the AIIB, aimed at financing much needed infrastructure investments across the Eurasian continent, they refused to join and sought to brow beat other nations to follow suit. Fortunately, on this occasion good sense prevailed in Europe and in Asia, as most countries from both joined. However, it does not make it less disappointing that the major Western powers and Japan should be no-shows at the forthcoming summit.

Of course, at this stage BRI represents a vision, a dream, that will face innumerable obstacles – financial, environmental, technological, logistical, social and geopolitical – to translate into reality. It is also without doubt motivated primarily by Chinese interests. The potential benefits, if the dream were even only partly realised, could be enormous. The inclusion of the Middle East and Central Asia could, if dreams came true, contribute to peace and prosperity in these currently dramatically turbulent regions. As to be primarily motivated by Chinese interests, what country ever undertook a major international initiative that wasn’t primarily motivated by its own interests? The post-war Marshall Plan was not an act of pure American altruism, but rather one of enlightened self-interest.

As I have tried to stress, China is by no means an angel. Nor, however, as Western and Japanese rhetoric tends to proclaim, is it a devil; or certainly no more so than previous rising great powers. Furthermore, while for much of modern history China was subjugated and marginalised, its quite staggering re-emergence will continue to mark the first decades of the 21st century. A successful, inclusive, globally collective effort to make BRI a reality could be a harbinger of peace and prosperity.  It is a pity that myopia and prejudice prevent Western and Japanese leaders from being present at this potentially seminal event.

 Jean -Pierre  Lehmann is Visiting Professor, Hong Kong University

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on 12 May 2017-05-16


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