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    How the Belt and Road Project Fills a Global Governance Vacuum

    Flagship development initiative provides leadership in areas where the West has withdrawn, says professor of Shanghai’s new OBOR-focused institute.

    With global governance in crisis and China hoping to offer its own vision for the future, none of the nation’s proposals have received more attention than the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative. At last month’s 19th Party Congress, OBOR was written into the party’s constitution. Not long after, on Nov. 6, Shanghai’s Fudan University announced the establishment of the Fudan Institute of Belt and Road & Global Governance (BRGG).

    What are the challenges facing global policymakers today? What role can OBOR play in global governance? Sixth Tone put these questions to Chen Zhimin, a professor at Fudan’s School of International Relations and Public Affairs and associate dean of BRGG.

    Sixth Tone: What are the problems with the current system of global governance?

    Chen Zhimin: Put simply, there are three major problems. The first is with the governance of individual nations and states. In the past, Western countries tended to view governance problems as something that only occurred in developing countries. Today, however, examples of weak or failed governance can be found in the developed world, too. In the developing world, these problems are generally attributable to underdeveloped internal capabilities or overwhelming external challenges. But those in the developed world can be attributed to those states’ complacency and misuse of power.

    The second issue is insufficient governance. Humanity is facing huge natural, technological, economic, social, and security challenges. Solutions to these problems will require us to pool resources, plans, and development mechanisms across the world. The difficulty of organizing collective action and the tendency of nations to be concerned solely with their own interests have led to a governance shortage.

    Third, and frequently overlooked, is the problem of wrong governance. After the end of the Cold War, Western countries made huge investments in the global governance project. However, in some respects, their efforts not only failed to bring about a system of global governance — they’re actually responsible for many of the problems facing the world today. For example, American military interventions in the Middle East have thrown the whole region into chaos. Meanwhile, Europe’s attempts to spread democracy to its neighbors have exacerbated geopolitical tensions with Russia and domestic instability throughout the entire Middle Eastern and North African region. For Europe, a more turbulent neighborhood has led to a rise of terrorism activists and a spike in refugee numbers.

    Viewed from this perspective, the West’s recent strategic pullback may be both positive and negative. On the negative side, it means that, with the West increasingly unwilling to share in its global burdens, those countries are investing less and less in the provision of global public goods. This will only amplify the current governance shortage problem.

    However, in light of the mistakes Western countries have made, any reduction of their wrong governance can be seen as a positive development. Overall, while the West’s strategic retreat is nothing to mourn, we must remain clear-sighted when it comes to the potential negative impacts it could bring.

    Sixth Tone: What contributions can OBOR make to global governance?

    Chen Zhimin: China’s role represents one of the major shifts in this new era of global governance. China’s growing resources can partly compensate for the West’s withdrawal, and the new ideas and programs it brings to the table may be able to reduce the global effects of governance failures.

    OBOR has already become the main forum for cooperation between China and many other countries. The new cooperative model it embodies — one founded on the principles of joint discussion, joint construction, and joint benefit — offers the possibility of injecting new ideas and possibilities into global governance systems.

    To begin with, OBOR is based on the notion of win-win cooperation. China’s own development can help spur that of other nations, and vice versa. For example, a report in May described how a Thai exporter of high-quality latex benefited from Chinese e-commerce expertise. After introducing the product into the Chinese market via online shopping platform — and moving into sales of offshoot products such as latex pillows — the Thai latex industry reportedly made six times more profit than when it relied on raw materials exports alone, in addition to satisfying China’s high domestic demand.

    Second, it is grounded in equality. By respecting national sovereignty, it seeks to advance a vision of mutually beneficial and cooperative governance on an equal basis.

    Third, it is empowering. The story of China’s development tells us that every country must follow its own development path, a road best explored by its own people. The most effective form of external support is to help countries become more capable, so they are better able to settle on their own ideal path toward expansion. OBOR does not intend to supersede the decision-making processes of the countries along its routes by allowing China to dictate their development choices.

    Sixth Tone: What must China pay attention to as it works to develop OBOR?

    Chen Zhimin: OBOR is a signal to the rest of the world that China is becoming a global power. Based on the history of such powers, China must not follow in the footsteps of so many past great powers and rely on force. A stronger China should not seek to dominate the world. Instead, it should use its newfound power and influence to make greater contributions to global governance.

    In addition, we must not overextend ourselves by taking on too much in an attempt to solve all the problems in the world. China alone cannot solve the world’s problems; such issues can only be resolved through global cooperation. Of course, as a nation’s power grows, so does the temptation to use it. Resisting this temptation will not be easy, but it is necessary.

    China’s domestic and international stances must also remain in sync. International investments should benefit local populations, or else the rest of the world will begin to turn against Chinese products, funds, and cultural values. Yet such investments must also improve the material well-being of the Chinese people, to secure continued public support for China's deepening global engagement.

    Furthermore, we must continue to innovate and work to navigate the traditional obstacles to broader international cooperation. Western countries have frequently been limited by their own theories of international cooperation, either believing it requires the presence of a hegemon to be viable, or that it can only take place under the auspices of Western democratic models. The model of international cooperation that China advances, meanwhile, is naturally non-hegemonic and open to a diversity of political systems.

    Sixth Tone: Doubts about OBOR have surfaced internationally, with some worried that it represents a covert form of Chinese expansionism and a turn toward hegemony. What do you think of these criticisms?

    Chen Zhimin: If you start from the premise of defending the global or regional supremacy of a given nation, then any expansion in Chinese influence is a potential threat to this hegemonic position. If you take the supposed universality of Western values as a starting point, any success on the part of a non-Western system such as China’s is bad news. There is no need for China to concern itself with such views; they are relics of a bygone world.

    Of course, we must take seriously any concerns that are raised about gaps between China’s diplomatic ideals and their practical application. China must always strive to correct its mistakes and be on guard against further errors. After all, the temptations of power are ever-present.

    Sixth Tone: How do you view the sudden proliferation of research institutes dedicated to OBOR in China?

    Chen Zhimin: The creation of OBOR is a core long-term goal of Chinese diplomacy, so it’s hardly a coincidence that a number of institutes devoted to the subject have sprung up. In the early stages of this program, low-quality work and duplication are unavoidable. The most important thing is for each of these institutes to make their own unique contributions.

    At BRGG, our hope is that we can draw on Fudan’s strengths in area studies, global governance studies, theoretical research, and multidisciplinary studies, and work with its vast network of domestic and international partners. By organically integrating the training of new talent with cutting-edge academic research, we can make unique contributions to the field of OBOR research.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editor: Matthew Walsh. 

    (Header image: A train travels through the desert in Zhongwei, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, May 5, 2016. Liu Jiaye/VCG)