October 16, 2019

The need for ‘empire’: a comparison between Belt and Road Initiative and US grand strategy in Europe

By Zeno Leoni.

The Belt and Road initiative has increasingly been under the spotlight in recent years.
Given the multi-dimensional profile of the project, scholars have concentrated on several areas of inquiry, from investments in Africa to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB); from the pan-continental road and rail networks that should integrate transport across Eurasia to the return to territorialism in the South China Sea; from the geopolitics of gas in Central Asia to economic corridors in Pakistan and Indochina; from the quest for a blue-water navy to the use of debt trap in developing countries. However, there is an old academic friend who is yet to make its appearance on the scene: ‘empire’.

Central to the scholarly category of ‘empire’ is the removal, by a predominant power, of subdued states’ sovereign borders. This feature, however, is at odds with the post-WWII international system, where territorial conquest and rule by geo-political coercion are viewed by most as old-fashioned 19th century practices. Often, ‘hegemony’ is used as a synonym. But they are not the same. For the neo-Gramscian perspective of International Relations, ‘hegemony’ is rather a synonym of even though it is more specifically a way of ruling based on capitalist integration and spread of economic benefits as opposed to military coercion.

In the post-WWII order, hegemony as much as empire do not capture with accuracy the essence of American imperialism, which manifests a mix of direct and indirect rule. Nor they help to describe the multifaceted grand strategy of China.

This author suggests that in order to go beyond empire and hegemony one could refer to ‘global sphere of influence’. Within this power arrangement, direct rule and national interests of a dominant state are

  • a) embedded in strategies prevalently implemented through indirect rule but reliant on elements of direct rule;
  • b) impacting on regions beyond the territory contiguous to the dominant state (extra-territoriality);
  • c) established as international interest – for the good of all. Global spheres of influence cannot be enforced and/or reproduced without the employment of elements of direct rule.

However, the latter can only be effective when complementing indirect rule, rather than in isolation or when prevailing. But the boundaries between direct and indirect rule have become increasingly ambiguous. 

Indeed, both American and Chinese grand strategies seem to fit within this theoretical framework, although for different reasons. At a preliminary observation, US and China grand strategies share an emphasis on universal narratives of peace and extraterritorial influence void of formal direct rule.

However, at a closer observation, two principal differences emerge. Firstly, although US liberal universalism and China’s tianxia place, respectively, the United States and China at the centre of the international order, the former requires other states to emulate the American model, while the second does not come with cultural or economic commitments attached.

Secondly, these strategies display two different ways of interlocking direct and indirect rule. Between 1945 and 1949, the United States set out its strategy of Wilsonianism-cum-primacy – that is, a conflation of globalism with nationalism –towards Europe. It sought to shape international rule of law through the Marshall Plan, but in a way that suited the competitive advantage of its industries. Where these principles were challenged, military bases and covert operations by CIA acted as iron fist. 

Instead, lately China has pursued its own extra-regional sphere of influence by aiming at investments in and ownership of strategic infrastructures. However, investments in strategic infrastructures may represent an element of direct rule – one that cannot be found in American grand strategy at all – to the extent these fix Chinese money into another state’s territory – offshore sovereignty or re-territorialisation.

In particular, these investments aim at building a logistic belt for trade access to Europe through its Eastern and Southern flank. Interestingly, Chinese grand strategy has not relied so far on direct military coercion – apart from the South China Sea.

These projects see Chinese companies involved either as financer and constructors, or as operators, or as important customers: Yiwu-Duisburg trainline (connecting China to Europe); Eilat-Ashdod cargo railway (bypassing Suez Canal); Southern section of Ashdod Port; Haifa Port; Piraeus Port; Budapest-Belgrade line; European route E763 (connecting Belgrade to Bijelo Polje); Pelješac bridge (connecting Serbia and Croatia); Trieste port logistic platform; Venice and Chioggia port cooperation with Piraeus; Genoa port; Palermo port offshore logistic platform (for access of big cargos); Deutsche Bahn-China Railways cooperation. 

A more articulated analysis would be beneficial in order to answer one fundamental question: is China’s grand strategy pursuing a global sphere of influence? In what ways this differs from that of past hegemons? These questions, in turn, do lead to other interrogatives. Comparing the BRI in Europe to the Marshal plan provides an analytical instrument at a time when the BRI is still in its embryonic stage: to what extent direct rule was central to American hegemonic aspirations and in what ways Chinese grand strategy is characterised by direct rule? Do Chinese strategic infrastructures abroad embed an element of state re-territorialisation, in addition to economic accumulation? In what ways ownership of strategic infrastructures gives (geo-)political leverage in return?

China’s grand strategy appears go beyond the kind of combination between direct and indirect rule that characterised US grand strategy. The importance that infrastructures have in the BRI reminds of old-fashioned British and German imperialism and the use, respectively, of powers and continental rails.

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