Beijing’s New Foreign Policy
No. 1 2014 January/March
Vitaly Vorobyov

A senior research fellow at the Center for East Asia and SCO Studies at the Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He is also Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.

Is China to Build a New Economic Silk Road?

Chinese leader Xi Jinping first came up with the idea of creating a Silk Road economic space as foreign policy priority for the current, fifth generation of national leaders during a visit in September 2013 to Kazakhstan. In view of the crucial and long-term character of his intention, it is in Russia’s interests, as a European and Pacific power and as China’s neighbor and long-term bilateral strategic partner, to take a closer look at what content China is putting into this newly conceived project and how the Asian power plans to implement it.


Chinese political experts quickly began drafting three or four phrases of the project that Xi outlined in his speech at Astana’s Nazarbayev University. It looks like those experts understood that routine words of praise about what Xi had said would be not enough. Instead, the experts are likely to deliver something more tangible. But for the idea to go beyond finely worded calls, the wishful project needs to be supported with an in-depth analysis of its facets and scale. Importantly, any analysis should not shift away from modern China’s activities on the international scene.

Generally speaking, the term ‘Silk Road’ has become a global brand and different forces have used it or tried to play this card in their own interests for a variety of purpose; for instance, to provoke rifts and to “contain” China. China seems determined to make this brand work to its own advantage. But if one looks beyond the standard perception of the Silk Road as a network of caravan routes, the peaceful picture of beneficial exchanges over many centuries reveals a history rife with conflicting assessments and contradictory opinions about the very same historical figures and events. For the idea to materialize, and become workable and appealing, its Chinese interpreters and designers will have to soberly calculate what it would take to properly promote the initiative outside the country (where the main target audience is). They should be prepared to hear opposing opinions and criticism of the politically charged project, and suggest different historical interpretations.

German traveler, geographer, and scientist Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term ‘Silk Road’ in the middle of the nineteenth century (incidentally, he also came up with the notion of Central (Inner) Asia). This generalized name for a series of trade and cultural routes from China to Europe across the vast expanses of Central Asia eventually took root and entered common parlance. For fifteen hundred years, up until the fifteenth century (long before global shipping routes were established), the Silk Road remained in operation, albeit with various degrees of intensity, and continued to promote contact between civilizations and scientific and engineering exchanges.

There is a widespread belief that nearly all cutting-edge ideas and know-how at that time came from China. However, Chinese merchants seldom traveled beyond their country’s immediate border. Unlike their Arab and Central Asian counterparts, Chinese traders did not travel at the head of caravans. This explains why many basic features of Chinese culture, such as hieroglyphics, lifestyle, and traditions did not spread to territories outside China. Instead, the Chinese adopted much from the Arabs: siege tactics and equipment, astronomic calculations, the famous blue-and-white porcelain, cloisonné, and the manufacture of certain types of paper. In addition to silk and porcelain, Chinese philosophy was highly welcome in Western Europe. Imported and fundamentally revised, Chinese philosophy made a significant contribution to the Renaissance.

However, the history of the Silk Road is full of bloody clashes over territory through which the caravans with goods moved. Both local chieftains and Chinese expedition forces were involved.

Mongol ruler Genghis Khan sought to establish control over the territory adjacent to the Silk Road when he sent his warriors to the west, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Who knows whether that was a sheer coincidence or he was acting on somebody’s advice. Significantly, his grandson Batu acted in the same manner, pushing even farther into Russian territory and Europe. Batu conquered all the northern branches of the Silk Road – from the Volga River as far north as Novgorod; along the Don and the Dnieper rivers, and along the lower reaches of the Danube River and the Black Sea coastal areas. In essence, the Mongols took control of all trade routes from Eastern and Central Eurasia to various parts of Western and Northern Europe.

Attempts to find historical, common, and uniting arguments to support the Chinese idea of a Silk Road economic space will likely either prove fruitless or produce the reverse effect. Chinese experts will have to display a great deal of wisdom to tacitly leave such themes aside, or focus on their neutral aspects.


At this point, following the opinions of Chinese political scientists and the printed media, Xi’s idea is still far from systemic. Rather, it looks like a “test shot” and its tone mostly sounds self-persuasive. Even the meaning of the words in the formula is obscure and makes an accurate translation difficult. The key hieroglyph in the phrase literally means “strip” or “belt.” If that is the case, then the whole project looks like it is confined to creating “economic corridors” along the historic Silk Road. However, the majority of comments indicate that the project applies not to a few routes, but entire countries (the way they exist today), whose territories were once used for transiting goods or were areas where Chinese products became widespread. In all, the list includes some 40 countries in Asia and Europe, including Russia (Siberia and the Far East). For this reason it would be more appropriate to interpret the Chinese term as “space,” as that best conveys the essence of the Chinese project.

The conceptual basis of any project can be drawn only if the objective is clear. This is essential for its perception by all those to whom it is addressed and who may see it as a challenge to one’s interests.

Is the project a formula to produce a brand name for the policy China has conducted in Central Asia for several years? In other words, is it devised to strengthen the already existing links between China and Central Asia? Or is it a policy largely motivated by China’s internal development?

Or does this idea, disguised as a new brand name, actually suggest China’s utilitarian intent to find extra opportunities in order to solve the increasingly acute twofold task of constantly expanding the markets for its products (including hi-tech production), while at the same time increasing the volume and transportation reliability of raw materials and energy imports? For this to happen, China would need to encompass a far greater region than just Central Asia.

Does the implementation of this idea suggest the creation of special institutionalized interstate instruments, i.e., a move towards organization formats? Or is its real aim to create a Chinese-based flexible configuration of autonomous areas with liberalized trade and economic regimes, such as the Eurasian Union and Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic partnerships?

What are the criteria that make it possible to rate specific initiatives, facilities, and measures (multilateral or bilateral) as an embodiment of the idea of creating a Silk Road economic space?

How do you interpret China’s widely proclaimed principle of “common advantage” with regard to trade and economic relations that are naturally permeated with the spirit of tough competition? It would not be very correct to understand it as equally advantageous in quantitative terms or as China’s altruistic financial infusions into a foreign economy.

As long as the opinion exists that this project has a cultural and humanitarian component, it is appropriate to ask how prepared China is for a situation in which many will interpret the project as a two-way street, with both commodities and politicized value perceptions flowing into China from Eastern and Western Europe.

Or is the objective quite different, where the emphasis is placed not on practicism or commodity-money relations and cargo flows, but on creating a conceptual platform that would serve as groundwork for adjusting the fundamental principles of peaceful coexistence to China’s practices of doing business in the international political and economic arena?

Chinese political scientists have quite a challenging task to address: they have a plurality of opinions and proposals to collect, sort them out, and then synthesize them into unambiguous and transparent formulas that will be clear to the world community. Importantly, those formulas cannot lead to a geopolitical split in Eurasia or economic clashes. Obsessing over improvisations and turning to radicalism may not result in combining the interests of different countries (for which China has called), but instead lead to a conflict of interests. It will first backfire on the prestige of China as a country that authored an idea as brisk as hard to translate into reality. In any case, outside of China the initiative will be associated with the special features of China’s conduct in global affairs. That behavior can be qualified as a manifestation of a new style of Chinese foreign policy.



In 2013, China’s foreign policy positioning acquired new traits and a new style. In political terms, China increasingly views its geopolitical status as the world’s second largest economy after the United States capable – not hypothetically, but in reality – of proceeding along the innovative path. Chinese foreign policy is becoming more proactive and aggressive both in words and deeds.

During the first year of a ten-year cycle in power, the fifth generation of Chinese leaders has shown that they share two fundamental and inner convictions.

First, the Chinese economic growth model must be upgraded and fine-tuned, and made highly competitive and stable for the long term. The new cycle of reform does not imply the replacement of any economic cornerstones; the basics of that system were laid during the Deng Xiaoping era and largely have proven effective. That system is quite similar to the ideas of Vladimir Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin in their concept of a new economic policy in the early years of Soviet Russia. At its Third Plenary Meeting in November 2013, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee adopted strategic guidelines contained in resolutions that included steady movement towards continuous expansion of the sphere of market control and still greater foreign economic openness. In other words, this is a policy to create ever more opportunities for China to be an active player in globalization process and to become one of its leading segments.

Second, top Chinese officials are certain about the need to shape a model of China’s geostrategic positioning and behavior that would match the essence of the new phase of the country’s historical development, contribute materially to the successful implementation of the adopted political and economic course, and, at the same time, project to the outside world a clear message that China’s rise as one of the most influential factors of global governance is unavoidable. China’s deep involvement in the global economy – and this is precisely what is at stake – implies participation in general political processes, the ability to see them comprehensively, and not in a simple utilitarian way. Upgrading the economic growth model inevitably entails the search for a corresponding model to expand the external projection of China’s interests. All these factors were visible in 2013.

It seems China is about to adjust its foreign policy paradigm dating back to the Xiaoping era, a model that determined the basic framework of Chinese foreign policy over the past three decades. Generally, the previous paradigm can be presented as a combination of several principles: independence and self-reliance, an emphasis on creating domestic potential in combination with a policy of greater openness, and selective foreign activity.

The following components of the newly emerging paradigm can be identified: independence and self-reliance; accumulation of domestic potential in combination with expanding the set of market instruments; deep involvement in world economic exchanges; and a steady buildup in foreign activity.

Previously, independence and self-reliance were proclaimed as a motto of self-expression on the international stage. Now they have gained a geopolitical significance and are an indisputable basis for a country’s foreign behavior. The internal potential buildup was understood mostly as quantitative extensive growth, with upgrading the available economic basis through the imposition of market reform from above and tight control of the degree of the country’s openness. Today, the consolidation of domestic potential looks more like steady economic development with reliance on intensification, market economy leverage, and greater openness to the outside world. Whereas selective external activity implied China’s self-assertion as a significant regional power, the buildup of foreign activity is aimed at turning China into a major player with strategic interests of a global scale.

Naturally, all of the above speculations are extremely hypothetical. Yet Chinese political scientists keep saying that 2013 saw a distinct trend towards a “re-tuning” of Chinese foreign policy. An analysis of several specific steps China took in 2013 and a variety of statements made during that time prompt the same conclusions.

Chinese pundits tend to consider their country’s policy primarily in the context of the China-U.S. tandem. The two countries are presented as the leading powers not only in the Pacific Region, where their status is postulated as an accomplished fact, but also in the modern world in general. In this context it is noteworthy that at a summit in California in early summer 2013, Xi suggested to U.S. President Barack Obama that the two countries formalize the principle of Sino-U.S. relations in a special formula. China believes that one of the most important tasks is coordinating some canonical principles of relations between the “major powers”—a term that, according to many commentators, chiefly refers to China and the U.S.

The year 2013 provided considerable evidence of an in-depth trend of symbiotic coexistence between China and the U.S. in the Pacific Region, even though overtly this process looked very much like outright rivalry. The two countries have a pragmatic awareness of the extent they depend on each other, yet also complement each other financially and economically. This mutual inter-dependence shows no signs of easing, even though both countries express resentment at times. But they have failed to reconcile their political interests, if anything like that is at all possible between two competing international actors, one of which is rapidly on the rise.

In 2013, Beijing stepped up attempts to assert its role and place as the U.S.’s main political partner in the Pacific Ocean. With this aim in mind it went ahead with attempts to push aside Japan, the U.S.’s traditional ally in the region. Chinese rhetoric and specific action in relations with Japan were primarily meant for the U.S. The way the latter would react was far more important to China than Japan’s response. Despite the close economic ties between the two countries, does the chill in Sino-Japanese relations indicate that neither country plans to concede its status as the Pacific Region’s second greatest power in political influence after the U.S.?

The traits of a new style in Chinese foreign policy are evident in the South China Sea, an area representing the most intricate bundle of territorial rifts between China and a number of Southeast Asian countries. The situation in the South China Sea is in the focus of the U.S.’s military and political attention in the context of the Asia-Pacific turn, which the U.S. administration proclaimed several years ago. The South China Sea continues to be an area where all sides flex their muscles, although all are careful to not step over the line (each for specific reasons). Notably, no country appears willing to find compromise solutions for complicated disputes regarding the sovereignty of the islands (the most likely solution to the issue is to fix the territorial status quo.)

In 2013, China sent two messages concerning the South China Sea, where the U.S. has increased its military presence. The Chinese invited Southeast Asian countries to create a maritime Silk Road. To support this idea, China relied on the exploits of Zheng He, a court eunuch, mariner, and explorer of Arab descent born into a Muslim family. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, He led several expeditionary voyages around the region. Also in 2013, China dispatched its sole aircraft carrier The Liaoning and a group of escort ships for “tests and research.” Is this strong and seemingly unexpected move by China an actual warning that China, without backtracking on its fundamental approaches, still regards the South China Sea as a zone where the interests of both China and the U.S. will predominate in political and military terms?

In line with the new style of Chinese foreign policy, it seems reasonable to consider one absolutely new postulate (still largely unnoticed, yet quite symbolic) that appeared in the April 2013 edition of China’s Defense White Paper. The document unequivocally declares that China has “far-reaching interest in maintaining its national security;” that is, interests that are not immediately linked with the protection of state borders, defense from foreign aggression, or response to foreign encroachments on its territorial integrity. One immediately draws a parallel with U.S. doctrines designed to “sanctify” and approve it superpower mode of action. Also, there are doubts that the Defense Ministry’s thesis of ensuring “far-reaching national interests” will match the seemingly constructive task set forth at the September 2013 foreign policy conference of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, which was formulated as the “creation of a belt of neighborliness with China’s close neighbors.”

Last year saw quite a few major events and far-reaching initiatives in both Chinese domestic and foreign affairs. Naturally, China’s idea of building a Silk Road economic space will be assessed abroad against all newly emerging traits in Chinese foreign policy and perceived as an integral part of those novelties.


Chinese political think tanks are focused on the problem of how to link the future of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with the implementation of China’s project for creating an economic Silk Road. China is one of the SCO’s co-founders, and has always said it is extremely interested in seeing a dynamic and effective SCO that enjoys great authority worldwide. Moreover, it was China that proposed the main parameters of the SCO philosophy, commonly referred to as the “Shanghai spirit.”

It would not be an exaggeration to assume that Xi’s idea largely stems from the twelve-year experience of the SCO, whose geographic range encompasses most of the target countries of China’s nascent project. The proposals put forward as its ideological basis appear to be an expanded version of the very same principles that constitute the groundwork of the “Shanghai spirit.”

Indeed, the SCO may find it flattering that its unique know-how of blending the interests of different states on an equitable basis and consensus is in demand, and now takes center stage in the framework of the Silk Road economic space project. The SCO is an international organization recognized worldwide; it is a subject of international law in its own right; and it has its own hierarchy and mechanism of making, promoting, and implementing decisions. At this point the interpreters of the Chinese idea of a new Silk Road argue that its implementation neither suggests nor means the “ousting” of existing international associations or the emergence of specific regulatory mechanisms in their place.

This is likely the case, but quite a few questions concerning the SCO’s future arise. How will the idea be implemented and what will be regarded as its implementation? The specific programs and projects for economic, cultural, and humanitarian cooperation are within the sphere of bilateral relations already, while multilateral cooperation is supposed to proceed within the SCO framework. Will the SCO’s efforts to draft a medium-term development strategy be directed so as to provide all-round support for the China-led project? In other words, to have the project incorporated in SCO strategy? Or will it happen so that the Chinese idea will begin to be implemented through existing SCO structures? Lastly, could the role of Chinese initiative be confined to putting more muscle into the economic potential of the Organization, for which there really exists a great need?

Whatever the case, it is important to prevent the emergence of an ambiguous situation in the relationship between an effective and authoritative international organization and the advancement of the Chinese project; let alone a situation where such advancement would hit the SCO’s current activities and future on the rebound.

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Formal expressions of support for the Chinese idea that have been come from outside China should not obscure the hard fact that the real perception of and consent for this project, let alone participation in it, implies an awareness of its essence and goals. In mathematical terms, at this point we only have the conditions of the problem. All players, including Russia, expect corresponding argumentation and explanations from the Chinese side. The faster China presents these arguments and the clearer they are, the less room there will be for idle speculation and rumor. In any case, China has put forth a major initiative. China is interested in a favorable response and support for its own foreign policy signals.