Chinese President Xi Jinping’s belt and road countries spans three continents, entails around $1.4 trillion of promised infrastructure investments and is ten times bigger than the US Marshall Plan that helped rebuild western Europe after the Second World War. In the fifth year of its implementation, the BRI effectively has established an inspirational global agenda with huge financial and geopolitical repercussions. At the core of the BRI is China’s attempt to remodel its own identity and to reconstruct global history. Chinese political elites view their country as a morally superior model of civilization with its own unique economic development path. Given this rhetoric — but also due to pragmatic needs — the normative and cognitive dimensions of China’s new strategic narrative require more scrutiny. However, while the growing alarmist assessments have largely overlooked the role of identity, ideology and history in the BRI, it is arguably more challenging for China’s leadership than geopolitical competition.
China’s changing identity
As China remains a ‘partial power’, the Chinese elites’ outward-looking ideology is ever evolving — their unsettled spirit mirrored in the ideational consequences of the BRI discourses: who they are and who they ought to become is wide open. Domestically, the BRI reinforces the search for a ‘natural’ Chinese identity and fuels the following questions: Is China a Eurasian or a Pacific country, or both, and what does this mean strategically and culturally? Should China, under the helm of the Communist party, act as a sovereign nation-state or a civilization? These questions are further complicated by the fact that the country’s citizens remain quite inward-oriented and do not necessarily support a globally engaged China. Moreover, whether a society that has culturally been a land animal since a Ming emperor in 1525 burned the magnificent treasure fleet of Zheng He to ashes can develop a seafaring civilization supportive of a future maritime power is questionable.
So far, the historical narratives of BRI rhetoric indicate a return to a ‘primordial’, that is, original and natural, world order but under modern conditions. This includes the use of imagery of ancient Eurasian trade networks, which put China at the centre of a ‘community of human destiny: an envisioned hyper-interdependent globalized modernity coupled with a new type of moral order based on notions from ancient Chinese philosophy such as tianxia (all under heaven). Thus the identity under construction springs from the cultural and normative treasures of its long history as much as from its more recent successes of economic modernization. Yet, the inclusive aims of the notion of ‘community of human destiny’ notwithstanding, China’s historical statecraft causes suspicions. Not only do the corresponding tianxia discourses imply normative exceptionalism, but the side-lining of controversial aspects of history or the selection of one-sided representations can lead to unexpected controversies.