March 25, 2021

In 2013, President Xi announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which envisioned rebuilding the ancient Silk Road and connecting East Asia to Europe through a myriad of development and infrastructure projects. Skepticism about Chinese influence, however, has increased both globally and in the countries that host BRI projects. In Central Asia, Chinese presence has fueled Sinophobia to which China responded by bolstering its soft power campaign. To better understand the successes and concerns of Chinese foreign policy, the Central Asia Program at The George Washington University and the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations invited authors Daniel Markey and Tim Winter on March 25 to launch their new books which discuss the domestic realities and geopolitical implications of the BRI.

Daniel Markey, author of China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia, noted the intersection of China’s ambitions on its Western periphery as well as the agendas of the various states that host projects in those ambitions. Markey finds that Chinese engagement and investment in some regions, particularly South Asia, overall have had a destabilizing impact and could ensnare China in unforeseen and undesired political and security situations. China’s expanding presence in South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East and its reshaping of regional dynamics also raises the question of how American policymakers should respond and engage with these regions while recognizing its own assets and limitations.

Tim Winter, author of Geocultural Power: China’s Quest to Revive the Silk Roads for the Twenty-First Century, offered critical historical context on how the narratives of the Silk Road have shifted over time as China has used them as a lever of power to link people and cultures to a shared imagined future. He posited the importance of “heritage diplomacy” in understanding how cultural nationalism and international relations repeatedly interplay to shape the geocultural landscape outside of China and its impact on China’s hard and soft power.

In an event attended by over 200 guests, the two books were discussed by Rodger Baker, senior vice president at Stratfor and senior fellow with the Bush China Foundation. Baker highlighted the complementarity of Winter and Markey’s presentations in their linking of changing historical interpretations to physical realities in the Belt and Road projects. He challenged the notion that China is unique in operating only in a win-win world of shared destiny. Baker argued that China, as it reaches a certain point of demographic, economic, political and military power, will face the same realities experienced by the other great powers.

For Markey, China’s interaction with Muslim regions or countries on its periphery and globally, might be a complicating factor. China’s control over Muslims in China is likely to damage Chinese activities in the future. Winter also noted how China instrumentalizes the historical heritage to integrate ethnic minorities, celebrate diversity but also destroy differences. This domestic development stands in sharp contrast to China’s driving internationalism at the international level, particularly as Beijing seems prepared to focus on this in the post-COVID world.

Sebastien Peyrouse, research professor of the Central Asia Program and senior fellow with the Bush China Foundation, moderated the discussion and raised the question of how Chinese citizens view China’s foreign policy and the soft power campaigns, and the implications of their opinions on U.S.-China relations. The speakers delved into the need to better understand south-south cooperation and the competition/cooperation dichotomy. In the case of China, this assumes for the United States not to “out-China China but strengthen its own assets, including by promoting free access to information, ideas and debates while taking into account the complexity of each country and region’s historical, social economic and political situations.”