After the Chinese central government announced the concept of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the 21st century “Maritime Silk Road,” the local government officials have followed up with further concepts and slogans, each to gain an upper hand and at the meantime seeking favor for their policies. This clamor and competition takes away the spotlight from the national strategy.

Since China introduced its reform and opening up policy three decades ago, there have been drastic changes on both the domestic and international front for China, prompting it to readjust its national strategy. Therefore, it is not without reason that the new leadership in China proposed the concepts of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “Maritime Silk Road.” And this proposal should not be regarded as an isolated event. 21st Century Business Herald interviewed Yan Xuetong, Secretary General of the World Peace Forum and Dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, to examine the new national strategy behind China’s sub-regional economic cooperation.

Readjusting the Diplomatic Strategy

Q: Strategically speaking, what is the background to why President Xi proposed in sequence the concepts of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road in the 21st century? And what does this reflect about China’s strategic mindset?

A: Out of the new foreign policies initiated by President Xi, the most remarkable part is that he is attaching more importance to China’s relations with neighboring countries. A working seminar on diplomacy with neighboring countries was held last October, which was the highest-level meeting on foreign affairs since 1949 because it was the first of its kind to have in attendance all the members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee and all Politburo members in Beijing.

For many years, we have given priority to relations with neighboring countries yet an initial principle is that Sino-American relations are the top priority. Our diplomatic relations with neighboring countries have not been regarded as top priority for a long time since improving relations with our neighbors will inevitably cause conflict in the Sino-US relationship.

After this adjustment in foreign policy, diplomacy with our neighboring countries has now become attached with greater significance. To be more specific, whenever improving our relations with neighbors is at conflict with our relations with the US, the former will be given higher priority. 

In terms of a specific strategy, our policies in the past emphasized on economic cooperation, but they are now more driven towards integration with neighboring regions. 

Q: Why did not we propose integration before?

A: Economic integration requires developed countries to make more contributions than developing countries. For example, to undertake the leadership role in the economic integration of Europe, Germany and France had to pay a higher price. Integration means the free flow of personnel, capital, and goods and in this process, France and Germany had to be more open to other countries in these different areas. 

True powers will finally opt for regional integration. I would like to give you a counterexample. A typical example of powers that are reluctant toward regional cooperation is Japan. Too obsessed with short-term interests, Japan did not want other forms of integration except for economic cooperation with East Asian countries, so it lost its status as the world’s second-largest economy.

Now we are promoting sub-regional integration in three regions. In addition to the more frequently discussed Silk Road economic zone and Maritime Silk Road, there is the China-India-Myanmar-Bangladesh economic corridor. Our goal is to promote integration in all three sub-regions.

We have promoted the development of the China-ASEAN relationship, which has produced fruitful economic and political cooperation. The top leadership now has a greater resolve and ambition—not only staying at the level of establishing free trade zones, but moving toward further integration. 

The "Go West" Strategy Questioned

Q: As we can see, the Silk Road economic belt, the Maritime Silk Road, and the China-India-Myanmar-Bangladesh economic corridor are westward and southwestward and some call them as part of China’s Go West strategy. What is your opinion on the Go West strategy?

A: I think many people’s understanding of the strategy of central government is not in line with the intent of the central leadership. The term “Go West strategy” will cause considerable obstacles for China to develop friendly relations with its neighbors and result in misunderstanding in the international community. Here comes a question: does China’s westward development mean a competition with Russia?

Some do not know that the top leadership’s grand strategy is to develop integration with neighboring regions as to create a favorable environment for Chinese rejuvenation. They thought that we were giving up the competition with the US but competing with Russia. That caused great obstacles some time ago when we promoted the Silk Road Economic Belt.

Q: What obstacles do you mean? Russia’s disapproval?

A: Instead of regional integration, the so-called Go West strategy is a concept of westward expansion and thus ran into strong resistance. So Chinese decision-makers had to do a lot of work and revise many plans about the Silk Road Economic Belt.

We once planned to have railways and oil and gas pipelines bypass Russia. But it seemed that we would compete with Russia. So we revised the plan and have them run through Russia. Only by this will the country join the economic belt. The move eased Russia’s concerns and offered other countries a way out of the dilemma of having to side with China or Russia.

President Xi recently made a clear statement that Russia is welcome to join the Silk Road Economic Belt and even the Maritime Silk Road. I am sure that once Russia agrees to join, both sides can have remarkable economic and political benefits.

Building a Community of Common Destiny 

Q: President Xi proposed to build a community of common destiny with ASEAN countries. What does this mean?

A: Many people, especially Chinese scholars, are reluctant to talk about this issue, because they know that the core of such a community is military cooperation. A community of common destiny will not exist without military cooperation

This piece was originally published in Chinese in 21st Century Business Herald.