The Belt and Road: Priority of Intelligence
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  • XUE Li

    Professor, Institute of World Economics and Politics, CASS

    Director, Office of International Strategy Research

  • ZHA Daojiong

    Professor, School of International Studies, Peking University

Over 2000 years ago, our ancestors, overcoming extreme difficulties, managed to open the gate for friendly communication with other countries and regions in the world. Two significant international passages were formed between China and the world, which are the renowned Overland Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road. In 2013, Chinese President raised the initiative of jointly building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (hereinafter referred to as the Belt and Road), which have attracted close attention from all over the world and received widespread support from countries along the routes. The Belt and Road, the first inter-continental development and cooperation framework led and proposed by China in nearly two centuries, is expected to construct a new grand circle of global economy and trade and become the third space for economic growth after the Atlantic and the Pacific. The region of the Belt and Road incorporates a total population of over 4.6 billion (more than 60% of the world population), with the total GDP reaching $20 trillion (approximately 1/3 of the global volume).

The Belt and Road turns China’s opportunity for development into one shared by the whole world to create a multi-win situation jointly. In the past three years, the Belt and Road, with its far-reaching effect, has obtained comprehensive support, and gathered the countries with the same ambition in the international community. In order to further introduce the Belt and Road to the world, the International Publishing Center of CNKI ( invited Xue Li (director of the Research Division of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), and Professor Zha, Daojiong (School of International Studies, Peking University) to share the ideas about the intelligence priority which would provide intellectual support for the construction of the Belt and Road.

1. As the construction of the Belt and Road foregrounds the priority of intelligence, how do think tanks work? Could you share some content patterns and methods in the study of the Belt and Road?

Xue Li: The Belt and Road, with $150 billion investment per year, is likely to become the diplomatic policy with the greatest international impact initiated by China since 1949. It is the top-level design or strategic conception of diplomatic relations formulated by the new Chinese administration led by Xi Jinping, and it will be implemented for a long period in the future. All provinces and the ministries or commissions have integrated the Belt and Road with its respective affairs. Moreover, as Ning Jizhe, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, stated on May 12, China’s foreign investment would reach $120-130 billion each year in the next five years, with a total volume of $600-$800 billion, and a large proportion of it would go to countries along the routes of the Belt and Road. In the past four years, China’s investment in these countries has only amounted to $60 billion, which means the next few years would see quick expansion of investment. Thus, how to undertake effective and sound investment is a topic worth studying.

The Belt and Road construction focuses on economy. Since the Reform and Opening-up, China’s most brilliant outcome has been in the economic field with comparative competition compared with other developing countries. Where will the investment go? It is supposed to pour into countries located in the north, west, and south of China. These countries are still stuck in the early stage of industrialization, with urgent need for investment and development in infrastructure and manufacturing, where China’s advantages in experience, technology, and capital could be of great use. In comparison with countries in the east, like Japan and South Korea, China does not have apparent comparative competition in the economic field from which China still need to learn.

As for the methods, talent cultivation is critical. Without any knowledge about these countries, the most poignant problem is that China does not have sufficient experts who understand the languages, cultures, politics, and economic situations in the countries along the routes of the Belt and Road. Although there are many Chinese in these countries who have worked there for decades and gained achievements, they are not well-educated, let alone systematic research on local politics and economy. To solve the problem of experts requires a long process. The Chinese government has started to provide scholarship for students in the countries along the routes, and some domestic universities have begun to train professional personnel for the requirements in an order-oriented way. For instance, Yunnan Minzu University recruits students majoring in Khmer language every year. I believe talents required in the short and medium term should also be cultivated. Two approaches can be adopted. The first is to send locals to China to undertake short-term skill training, which has been tried by some Chinese enterprises, such as the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone of Hongdou Group and the Sino-African Teda Suez. The other is that China sends experts to be trained in the countries along the routes. For instance, China has dispatched experts to the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.

Concerning the poverty relief with intelligence, a large number of countries that want to learn from China intend to get informed of the experience of Reform and Opening-up and the experience in Shenzhen. Nonetheless, they have no access to effective means. When China establishes trade parks in these countries, it could demonstrate the experience to locals and promote relevant legislations enacted locally. One typical example is that after the Ethiopian government witnessed the development of the Eastern Industry Zone operated by Chinese corporations, it built a series of its own development zones. The system of land division and renting has been implemented with the promotion of Chinese enterprises. Similarly, the Hongdou Group has enhanced the installation of the classification system for imported commodities in the Cambodian government. In the aspect of soft-environment construction, Europe and the United States have rich experience. For instance, I saw in Tbilisi that European Union dispatched a delegation to Georgia to help with judicial reform and police training.

Zha Daojiong: Like China 40 years ago, countries and societies in respond positively to the vision of the Belt and Road are faced with a prevailing trend of global economic development. With investment and trade opportunities provided by economic entities including China, they are expected to grasp the global economic growth trend. In the history, China used to follow other leading countries in the endeavor to promote economic inter-connection between different countries. In the future, China will try to put forward new proposals which are expected to get supported by the international community. Research on the Belt and Road in the future should be redirected to specific programs: how to construct, how to provide sustainable development service for local regions (including China’s provinces, cities, and counties), and how to become an active link in the global economic chain. China’s think tanks will be recognized at home and abroad only by contributing to the research on specific programs and countries. In the process, China should cooperate with foreign think tanks as well.

2. The Belt and Road has been implemented for three years. What economic and trade outcomes and research outcomes has it brought to China?

Xue Li: The construction of the Belt and Road for the past three years have surpassed the expectations. Over three years ago, I began to study the Belt and Road, without expecting to see such a tremendous impact and outcomes. My understanding of the Belt and Road has also been deepened in this process. Certainly, Chinese government has continued to add to the significance of the Belt and Road.

In terms of outcomes of the practice, the Belt and Road has been written in some UN resolutions, which reinforces its international legitimacy. More than a hundred countries and international groups have participated in the construction of the Belt and Road, and over 40 countries have signed bilateral agreements with China. A range of projects have been accomplished or under construction, e.g. the opening of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway and the Mombasa-Nairobi Railway, and the signing of the construction agreement of the Jakarta-Bandung Railway. Currently, the Belt and Road is mainly driven by bilateral efforts. In addition, support from countries along the routes is critical to the construction of the Belt and Road. Local governments in countries where satisfactory progress has been made generally adopt a positive attitude. For instance, Pakistan has even set up a protection force of 15.000 people for the programs of the Belt and Road.

Further, the number of trade cooperation zones built abroad by China has reached 56, recognized by local governments, and even hundreds of zones including those not recognized by governments. The merit is that China’s general comparative advantages can be well used, creating a relatively favorable mini-environment for Chinese enterprises to expand overseas. Of course, these zones are not reserved for Chinese enterprises and other foreign enterprises are also welcome. For instance, in the second phase of the Suez Economic Zone, corporations from other countries have entered the zone.

In the cultural dimension, the training for a large number of people has been initiated, and scholarship has been set up. For instance, the Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has started the Belt and Road training class. Numerous universities have also followed suite for the purpose to allow relevant countries to fully grasp the Belt and Road policy and promote the implementation of the Belt and Road locally. Countries not informed may wonder why China is so friendly, offering projects and loans, and whether there is any conspiracy. In effect, there is no conspiracy, China’s GDP per capita has reached over 8.000 so that foreign investment is a normal trend, and the cooperation is necessary because the Belt and Road will benefit China as well as countries along the routes. The cooperation programs are not charity oriented but profit-pursuing. The cooperation won’t be sustainable without profit. To notify relevant countries of these reasons is beneficial to strengthen the cooperation. For those reluctant to work with China, there is no need to force them into the cooperation.

These efforts are made in the aspect of practical construction. Concerning the research, the data issued by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reveals that there are nearly 20.000 papers, monographs, research reports, etc. about the Belt and Road. In terms of books, compilations are numerous while monographs are not abundant. As I know, Zhao Lei from the Party School of the Central Committee of CPC, Wang Yiwei from Remin University of China, Zhao Kejin from Tsinghua University, and Liang Haiming from China Silk Road iValley Research Institute have published monographs and I have also published one and edited a compilation. Wang Yiwei’s work The Belt and Road: Opportunities and Challenges has been translated into Arabic, English, etc. and published. Regarding for journals, there is Silk Road Outlook, with both Chinese version and foreign language versions. It is probably China’s first foreign language journal marked by the theme of the Belt and Road, sponsored by China Pictorial.

Different scholars in their research highlight different aspects of the Belt and Road. Zhao Lei underlines cultural economics, holding that the construction of the Belt and Road will lead to the rise of China. Huang Rihan studies the big data and public opinion about the Belt and Road. Wang Yiwei is adept in interpreting the policies with a broad view. Zhao Kejin has conducted an investigation in different provinces and written corresponding regional study report. I concentrate on the analysis and evaluation in the aspects of diplomacy and strategies. Liang Haiming emphasizes the analysis from the perspective of economics and has put forward the concept of omnipresent economics. Chu Yin and other scholars have written papers on the Belt and Road. Some even discuss the construction of Confucian Canteens along the routes from the viewpoint of food. Moreover, foreign scholars have begun to pay attention to the study of the Belt and Road with Monographs, papers, and research reports published. I have even discovered some European researchers who specialize the Sino-Pakistani Economic Corridor. The book the Belt and Road: Analysis of Chinese and Foreign Scholars I edited collects many studies of the Belt and Road written by dozens of domestic and overseas researchers.

3. In the future coordination with countries along the routes of the Belt and Road in energy cooperation, investment, etc. what issues should we pay attention to?

Zha Daojiong: It is a narrow way of thinking to consider the link between the Belt and Road and energy as merely draining energy from other countries to meet China’s domestic need. Since 20th Century, the interaction in oil and natural gas between China and the international market has entered the fourth stage. The first stage took place after the implementation of Reform and Opening-up in 1979. During that period, China was short of money and technology to develop domestic oil and gas resources, so as to import energy from other countries. The second stage generally started from 1993 focusing on oil field, natural gas fields, and ores with hunger and eagerness. Several years after that, China’s oil and gas companies found that resources bought overseas could not always be transported, and investment in overseas resource programs could not solve the problem of domestic resource shortage. In the third stage, China began to consider joint investment with other foreign companies in overseas oil and gas program investment and assert China’s advantage in capital and labor force. In the current fourth stage, profits should be stressed in foreign energy investment, which should help Chinese enterprises enhance their competitiveness in the value chain of global energy products and services.

To promote energy self-supply in countries that participate in the framework of the Belt and Road is the foundation for Chinese enterprises investment in energy. A large number of resource countries, including those identifying with the Belt and Road conception, are still faced with different levels of energy poverty. Chinese enterprises should set the primary objective of energy cooperation as alleviating the energy poverty situations. Otherwise, societies of relevant countries will regard the principle of sharing advocated by Chinese government as an empty promise.

4. What are the means and strategies for the exchanges of research outcomes in countries along the routes of the Belt and Road? How can we tell Chinese stories in these research outcomes effectively?

Zha Daojiong: Chinese stories should not be the patent privileging China’s think tanks or governmental institutions. That is also impossible. The most effective way is to work with foreign institutions and start from the need of the target audiences to design Chinese stories and communicate them by the means local people are accustomed to and asy to accept.

JTP's LIU Kang contributed to this report.

Disclaimer: The remarks of experts above are of their own, which don’t represent this website.