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Solving the ‘Rise’ Dilemma: How the Chinese Silk Road Initiative Could Challenge the United States

Symbolic image of a clash between the US and China. Image: Iecs/Wikimedia

On March 28, China’s National Development and Reform Commission and Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Trade presented the first national action plan to promote the “One Belt, One Road” initiative (一带一路, Yīdài yīlù). This initiative has become the economic and diplomatic priority of Chinese President Xi Jinping since the presentation of two complementary projects in late 2013: a “Silk Road Economic Belt” throughout the Eurasian continent, and a “21st century Maritime Silk Road”, connecting the South China Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. These initiatives aim to boost economic integration on the Eurasian continent and its peripheral seas through the construction of an infrastructure network. Beijing has been pursuing this goal through the creation of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has been joined by 56 countries including France and Germany, recently announced investments worth $46 billion to build a China–Pakistan Economic Corridor bypassing the Strait of Malacca, and the creation of a $40 billion Silk Road Fund.

The “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which reflects China’s growing economic power, is both a challenge to US influence on the Eurasian continent and a strategy to promote peripheral stability, which is China’s top diplomatic priority. If well implemented, it could become a key vector of Beijing’s growing political influence in Eurasia, enabling China to sustain its ‘rise’.

China’s ‘rise dilemma’

As a rising power, China faces a “rise dilemma” (崛起困境, juéqǐ kùnjìng). According to power transition theory (and what has been termed ‘Thucydides’ trap’ ), rising powers like China elicit opposition from their neighbours as well as dominant powers like the United States, increasing tensions and the likelihood of war.  Assuming that conflict between rising and dominant powers is not inevitable, China’s dilemma is to avoid a direct political and military confrontation with the United States in which it would be the main loser and to prevent its neighbors from balancing its rise.

Indeed, China cannot afford to confront the United States and therefore suffers from an insecurity complex. In an international system dominated by the United States, Beijing remains a fragile power, and its top leaders remain focused on the many domestic challenges they face: whether political, economic, demographic or environmental. China may now be the world’s largest economy (at purchasing power parity), but its export-led economic model needs significant reform. In particular, the ‘new normal’ of slower growth is reducing the growth differential with the United States, which has fallen from 12 percentage points in 2009 to less than 4 in 2015 (according to IMF estimates). Moreover, although the People’s Liberation Army is modernizing, it continues to lag behind the United States.  Despite rapid increases, China’s military expenditure still represents only one third of the United States’ military budget. Finally, this insecurity complex is deepened by the United States’ ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific – a political, military and economic strategy which aims at increasing US influence in the region.

Stabilizing the periphery and countering US influence

As a rising but still dominated power, Beijing’s dual priority is to a) stabilize its periphery in order to ensure that China’s economic development (and, with it, the legitimacy of Communist Party) continues; and b) to reduce the influence of the United States in Eurasia. The importance of stabilizing the periphery has been emphasized during both the CCP’s Work Forum on Chinese diplomacy toward the periphery in October 2013 and the CCP’s fourth Central Conference on work relating to foreign affairs in November 2014. This emphasis coincides with a consensus among Chinese scholars.

The new Silk Road projects also help to achieve this dual priority. By deepening interdependence and pursuing common interests with its neighbors, China becomes the key partner for their economic development while weakening the economic and political leverage of the US over these countries. With foreign reserves close to $4 trillion, China seeks to share the benefits of its economic development and its trade surplus in order to be viewed by its neighbors as an essential engine of growth rather than an economic predator.  This serves to further reassure them and prevent them from aligning with the United States.

China’s ambitions

If it can successfully implement its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative, China could continue to increase its economic and political power while stabilizing its periphery. This might help to avoid a confrontation with the United States and, by buying their neutrality, would prevent its neighbors from balancing its rise.

Washington has so far rejected Beijing’s attempt to participate in negotiations on the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and has refused to join the AIIB. The risk is that the United States may not fully benefit from the economic development of the Eurasian continent, still a priority of the Obama administration. Washington could also see its allies, such as South Korea, grow even closer to China, which could reduce its political influence in the long term.

Of course, high hopes on the Chinese side could quickly vanish if a) the United States executes a further economic rebalance to the region and strengthens its alliances, especially with Japan, or b) if China continues to mishandle its territorial disputes, weakening its strategy of reassurance. Clearly, China’s ‘rise dilemma’ remains far from solved.


Antoine Bondaz is a PhD candidate at Sciences Po under the supervision of Pr. François Godement, a fellow at Asia Centre and a former visiting scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. He is a regular contributor to the quarterly journal China Analysis of the European Council on Foreign Relations (a.bondaz@centreasia.eu).

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