The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century

Image of The Emperor's New Road: China and the Project of the Century
Release Date: 
September 29, 2020
Yale University Press
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Is China trying to help or to dominate the world with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? Whatever its goals, will it succeed? These questions arise from the scope of what PRC president Xi Jinping in 2017 called “a project of the century” but what some observers portray as the project of our century. Jonathan E. Hillman, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, has gone on site—to the very countries where the BRI is taking shape—to evaluate its meaning and its prospects. He provides a well-grounded and reader-friendly tour of this horizon.

This landscape, Hillman writes, “has much in common with the past, but it is more complex than any “Great Game” or imperial contest.” Yes, China is forging ahead while the Trump administration does little but complain. But Japan, India, Russia, and others have their own designs. “Far from being pawns, smaller countries are often the most pivotal players.” Many have more experience dealing with outside players than China has acting like one. In Southeast Asia, Hillman says, the powerful pay what they must and the weak take what they can.

Is the BRI a beast of burden, a golden goose, a Trojan Horse, or a white elephant? Some of each, Hillman says. Its impact on each partner country is different. China has used huge infrastructure projects to grow its own economy, though many have been wasteful and sit nearly unused. Doing infrastructure abroad is another matter. How each project develops depends on the local context. Mega projects offer ample opportunities for corruption, especially when they proceed with little transparency or accountability.

The BRI is no Marshall Plan. It will expend more funds and last more than three or four years, but the problems in building less developed economies are far greater than in rebuilding already industrialized nations devastated by war.

Hillman’s tour of the horizon begins in Central Asia, main corridor for the earlier Silk Road. Hillman knows the area well because he was a Fulbright scholar in Kyrgyzstan. He then takes the reader to Putin’s Russia, ostensibly a close partner of Xi Jinping, but which serves as a “gatekeeper” for passage to Eastern and Central Europe. He then follows the BRI by sea from China to Southeast Asia, where the weak have clout; to Pakistan, a “black hole;” and then to Sri Lanka, where both sides play a game of loans.

Hillman’s last stop is East Africa, a zone where PEACE (the Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe cable) borders on actual or  potential military conflict. Djibouti is a major landing point for undersea fiber-optic cables and a critical stop on China’s digital silk road. “Beijing aims to capture 60 percent of the global market for fiber-optic cables. Of all the BRI’s dimensions, its digital connections may ultimately prove the most consequential.“

The book is rich in historical perspective. A Chinese-built and managed train now connects Djibouti and Ethiopia, supplanting a French-built train that rusted in desuetude. When the new train hit livestock, the Chinese, compensated its owner by twice the market value. So more livestock began to graze near the tracks. The same thing happened to the French a century earlier, when herders put their elderly or diseased goats and camels in harm’s way.

The BRI is a work in progress. Nearly every one of its projects has mixed results. The only corridor so far is the one linking China and Pakistan through the mountains, but it is closed by winter weather much of the year. Xi Jinping says the BRI will facilitate the exchange of knowledge, but Chinese censorship and repression steadily cut down on free expression within China. Beijing hopes the BRI will improve China’s soft power image abroad, but the new silk road passes through Xinjiang, the very province where more than one million Muslims—perhaps two—are locked up and where most mosques have been destroyed. Turkey’s president Erdogan initially supported the BRI but stayed away from its second celebratory meeting.

Hillman’s book provides a nuanced view of world affairs. For policymakers, it shows the risks as well as the pluses of imperial outreach and, at the opposite extreme, head-in-the-sands unilateralism. Without belaboring theories of international relations, it provides insights into the validity of the paradigms offered by realists, idealists, Marxists, constructivists, and proponents of global interdependence. In this way, it could be a valuable supplement to conventional textbooks on international studies. But it will be a rewarding eye-opener for anyone interested in the rise of China and its consequences for the United States and all nations.