Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping has gone to great lengths to proclaim that China has no ambitions to be a global hegemon, but in a classic case of Chinese double-speak, other Chinese officials are telling us that China is building the blocks for global domination.
During a Dec. 18, 2018 speech marking the 40th anniversary of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s opening and reforms, Xi Jinping stated, “No matter how far China develops, it will never seek hegemony.”
But one of China’s most important building blocks for hegemony may be its massive 2013 ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road Initiative—BRI). This reportedly $1 trillion infrastructure and network building program, according to Xi, now encompasses “over 150” governments and multilateral organizations.
By 2017, Chinese enterprises had signed over 1,800 contracts in 62 OBOR member countries amounting to over $32 billion. OBOR is now synonymous with China’s foreign policy and so bound up with Xi’s personal dictatorship, that in 2017, he had it “enshrined” in the CCP Constitution.
With OBOR, Xi wants to move China to the center of global authority, convincing more countries to accept Chinese preferences for less transparent economics and more authoritarian politics, very much at the expense of the rules-based order that the United States and its allies have tried to build since World War Two.
But China does not want the world to view OBOR as a power grab and Xi himself has helped lead a campaign to portray OBOR as a peaceful projection of Chinese power. In August 2018, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Yi was cited saying, “President Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed that the Belt and Road Initiative originates from China, but belongs to the world.”
Furthermore, at the end of August 2018, Chinese state media cited Xi saying, “BRI is an initiative for economic cooperation, instead of a geopolitical alliance or military league, and it is an open and inclusive process rather than an exclusive bloc or ‘China club.’”
Xi and other Chinese officials are trying to push back against rising fears that OBOR is a backhanded attempt to gather geopolitical access and influence, in great part because OBOR is part of a larger Chinese effort to engage in “debt trap” diplomacy, promoting projects doomed to default on loans, with China then acquiring the “asset.”
This happened in December 2017 when Sri Lanka could not pay loans for a new port in Hambantota, instead giving China a 99-year lease to control it. Other countries like Pakistan, Cambodia, Venezuela also carry heavy Chinese debt and are vulnerable to having ports and airports taken over.
However, some analysts accept China’s opinion that economic priorities prevail with OBOR. Writing in the Washington Post last May 31, Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Jonathan Hillman stated, “…to date, the BRI is mostly an economic and political program with military implications, rather than the other way around.”
But an opposite intention was conveyed by Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe, during a July 8, 2019 meeting in Beijing with military officials for the “Fourth Forum of Defense Officials from the Caribbean and South Pacific Countries.”
That same day Chinese state-run media Xinhua reported, “Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe …said China is willing to deepen military exchanges and cooperation with the Caribbean countries and Pacific island countries under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)… adding that cooperation will be promoted in such areas as anti-terrorism, peacekeeping and disaster relief to strengthen exchanges and cooperation under the framework of the BRI.”
But it turns out that more than a year earlier, none other than the top Chinese political official in charge of OBOR, Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng, also acknowledged that OBOR also has a military dimension. According to a May 25, 2018, Xinhua report, “Han Zheng called for enhanced security risk evaluation as well as bilateral and multilateral security cooperation for the Belt and Road development.”
China often employs “double-speak” to deceive and divide opponents in order to advance its objectives. For example, starting in 2003 China led the formation of the Six-Party Talks with North Korea, not to seek denuclearization by Pyongyang, but to buy time so that it could build nuclear missiles that can reach all American cities.
In this case, the big deception, China does not seek “hegemony,” requires supporting deceptions: OBOR is not a strategy to advance military power.
But the militarization of OBOR would be consistent with how China is militarizing other proto-alliances. In mid-2018, China formed its China-Africa Defense and Security Forum (CADSF), building a military network led directly by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), on top of its economic and commercial oriented Forum on China-Africa Cooperation created in 2000.
Perhaps China will use regional “forums” to build regional military networks, and then use the OBOR to build a future global defense “forum” that will use China’s economic influence to reinforce participation in both regional and global Chinese-led military organizations.
Members of these regional and global “forums” would then increasingly follow China’s leadership over that of the West, perhaps even cooperating militarily to contain and diminish American and Western influence.
During his January 2018 visit to China, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that OBOR should not help build a “new hegemony.” Then on Feb. 14, 2018, Admiral Harry Harris commented on OBOR before the U.S. House of Representatives, saying, “It is a concerted, strategic endeavor by China to gain a foothold and displace the United States and our allies and partners in the [Indo-Pacific] region.”
Is it time to conclude that contrary to Xi Jinping’s statement, China does intend to use its OBOR to create “a geopolitical alliance or military league?” Furthermore, as President Macron fears, China is seeking to build a “new hegemony.”
Rick Fisher is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center based in Potomac, Md.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.