The ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ Strategy: Actualizing President Xi Jinping’s Foreign Policy

Speech by Robert Lawrence Kuhn at Silk Road Economic Belt International Seminar (June 2014)

The Honorable Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian, State Council Information Office Minister Cai Mingzhao; distinguished scholars, officials and guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I am honored to participate with you in exploring President Xi Jinping’s grand vision of the Silk Road Economic Belt, a fresh approach to economic development and geopolitical philosophy. As I listen to my esteemed colleagues, I hear five core categories that describe this innovative way of thinking: history, culture, trade, mutual development, and peaceful development.

I offer a different perspective. I am on the frontlines of China’s engagement with the world through international media, particularly Western media. I give commentaries on international news networks (e.g., BBC), and business networks (e.g., Bloomberg); I write essays for major newspapers (e.g., South China Morning Post, New York Times); and I am interviewed frequently about China, usually when problems arise and tensions mount. For more than two decades, I and my long-term business partner, Mr. Adam Zhu, have been working to tell the true story of China, in all its richness and complexity, to the world.

From this perspective, I ask how do Western media report China’s Silk Road Economic Belt strategy? Not very much, actually; the strategy is underreported. When it is discussed at all, one finds caution, even suspicion. Are these justgrandiose words,Western media asks, signifying little? Or is there real substance here? More darkly, what is China up to?

What relevance today of the ancient Silk Road, the trade routes of antiquity that connected East and West? Can China’s strategy of building the Silk Road Economic Belt, land and maritime routes, fit coherently into China’s overarching foreign policy?

Surely in the ancient world, the Silk Roadplayed a critical role in catalyzing interactions among civilizations, linking China,India, Persia, Turkey, Europe, Arabia, Egypt, North Africa and East Africa. Butwhat relevance today, foreign media asks? The Silk Road, at first blush,seemsmore a resonant metaphor of China’s historic engagements with the world than a real-world model ofcontemporary economic development and global geopolitics.

How do I respond? How to present the President Xi’s vision of the Silk Road Economic Belt to foreign skeptics?

I begin by paying attention when President Xiasserts that it is a “foreign-policy priority for China to develop friendly cooperative relations with Central Asian countries” and that “the ancient Silk Road is becoming full of new vitality with the rapid development of China's relations with Asian and European countries.”

How then do we move from paying attention to relevant analysis?

I propose an organizing principle to analyze theSilk Road Economic Belt in terms of China’s broad foreign policy objectives. To do this, my methodology is tocompare and integrate two seminal speeches by President Xi—one on his proposal for a Silk Road Economic Belt and one on his political philosophy as it informs China’sforeign policy. Wemap the former onto the latter—the Silk Road Economic Belt on to China’s foreign policy—in order to gain insights into both.

On September 7, 2013, in his speech at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan,President Xi proposed building a Silk Road Economic Belt as a ‘grand cause benefiting people in regional countries along the route’.On May 15, 2014,in his speech celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), President Xi presented his diplomatic philosophy (underreported, as noted, in global media).

Let’s observe what happens when we take President Xi’s principles for developing the Silk Road Economic Belt and project them onto his principles for pursuing China’s foreign policy. This is our task.

The following eight categories, taken from President Xi’s speech to the CPAFFC, are primary principles of China’s foreign policy. For each, we seek corresponding ideas from President XI’s speech proposing the Silk Road Economic Belt.

- Multi-Polar World: A multi-polar world has long been at the core of China’s foreign policy, which opposes domination by a single superpower today (i.e., U.S.) just as it opposeddomination by two superpowers during the Cold War (i.e., U.S. and USSR). The Silk Road Economic Belt, which encompasses more than three dozen nations along multiple land and maritime routes, exemplifies a multi-polar world. Moreover, it does not escape our notice that although China does not seek leadership, it is the historic origin of the Silk Road. By contrast,the not at all connected(for obvious reasons of geography and history) and Russia isless central. While we may be tempted to compare China’s Silk Road Economic Belt with the U.S.’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, the analogy may be misleading because the former is more a way of thinking to stimulate and energize mutual developmentandnot an alliance of sorts with rules and regulations applied generically. More important, though, we all must guard against exclusionary groupings; economic development is optimized by inclusion.

- Complex and Volatile Issues. In articulating his foreign policy philosophy, President Xi called attention to a constellation of mega-forces that affectinternational affairs, including economic globalization (global markets in commerce and finance), information society (and information security), andethnic and religious tensions. All of these mega-forces are represented by multiple examples and invarying degrees among the countries of the Silk Road. Indeed, Silk Road countries display the kinds of multifacetedissues with which we must deal in the early 21st century.

- Tolerance and Diversity. Describing his approach to foreign policy, President Xi lauded tolerance as a ‘virtue’, especially regarding diversity. He pledged China would be “fully open” and he promoted “mutually beneficial cooperation with other countries”. The countries of the Silk Road portray the many-layered diversity of humankind, especially different ethnicities and religions, which all-too-often have become tragically divisive. For humanity to survive, and certainly to prosper, diversity must be appreciated and tolerance encouraged. There is no better place to start than with the countries along the Silk Road.

- Peaceful Development. President Xi vowed that China’s growth and emergence would remain peaceful, thus maintaining continuity with China’s previous generations of leaders. Regarding the Silk Road Economic Belt,Xi proposed that in order to make economic ties closer, mutual cooperation deeper, and space of development broader, the Silk Road Economic Beltshould be constructed jointly and in a step-by-step process. In this manner, thoughtful and careful development will gradually build overall regional cooperation but not risk triggering debilitatingregional disruption. President Xi called for policy communication to coordinate economic development strategies, trade facilitation, and multinationalcollaboration. He also highlighted improving cross-border transportation, getting down to critical details such asroad connectivity.

- No Hegemony. In presenting China’s foreign policy,President Xi rejected the so-called “China Threat Theory” as “misleading”, having been founded on “deeply rooted prejudices”. He stressed that China has always been a peace-loving nation, Chinese culture advocates harmony, China suffered grievously from foreign aggression, and Chinese philosophy does not impose on others. Chinese patriotism “defends the homeland,” Xi stated, but China does not colonialize—Xi referenced the ancient Silk Road as promoting East-West trade for mutual benefit without conquests. Reiterating a familiar theme, President Xi vowed that no matter how powerful China becomes, China will never seek “hegemony” over others. In context of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Xi said thatChina respects the development path as well as the domestic and foreign policies that Central Asian nations have independently chosen for themselves. China, he said, will never intervene in internal affairs of Central Asian countries, never seek leadership in regional affairs, and never operate spheres of influence.

- Vigilance Against War. History tells us that war is like the devil and a nightmare for all peoples, President Xi said, yet the world today is dangerous and in many countries wars rage or simmer. Wisely not sugarcoating multiple contemporary conflicts—ignoringthe realities of severe problems would be ultimately self-defeating—President Xi stated that China will actively assume more international responsibility, together with other countries, to jointly facilitate settlement of hotspot issues, support peacekeeping, and respond to humanitarian crises. China, Xi pledged, will continue to deal with conflicts and differences through dialogue based on equality and patience.Addressing Silk Road countries, President Xi identified‘major core interests’, including state sovereignty, territorial integrity, security and stability. He encouraged mutual support and joint efforts to crack down on the "three evil forces" of terrorism, extremism and separatism, as well as on drug trafficking and transnational organized crime.

- People-to-People Communications. As a newer aspect of China’s increasingly sophisticated foreign policy, people-to-people communications was highlighted by President Xi as the foreign policy category that enables more multi-channel, multi-level exchanges between peoples—an on-going process that is needed to promote mutual understanding and learning. Examples include sister cities, cultural activities, civil diplomacy between non-government organizations, and public diplomacy among diverse peoples (from retired officials to young people). President Xi called for “good Chinese voices” to tell “good Chinese stories” in order to show the world the true China in a multidimensional way. Addressing the Silk Road Economic Belt, Xi stressed people-to-people exchanges, strengthening friendly interactions between peoples at all levels—from high government officials to independent-thinking academics—so as to encourageappreciation and friendship.

- Community of Destiny. In his foreign policy philosophy, President Xi stressed the importance of unifying the diverse dreams of different peoples in common pursuit, promoting global peace and human development. This will not be easy, he cautioned. China, he said in context, has major challenges and should learn from the achievements of other countries, thus participating seriously and enthusiastically in the ‘Community of Destiny’. In formulating the Silk Road Economic Belt,President Xi pointed out that the 2,000-plus-year history of exchanges along the ancient Silk Road had proved that countries with differences in race, religions, beliefs, political systems and cultural background can share peace and development—as long as they collectively persist in seekingcommon goals and mutual trust, equality and mutual benefit, and tolerance and mutual learning. Success over time will be marked by outputs expressed bywin-wincooperation between countries and outcomes expressed byincremental accomplishmentswithin countries.

I can testify to President Xi’s consistency in philosophy and policy. What he said in 2014 in Beijing he had told Adam Zhu and me, eight years ago in Hangzhou, when Xi was Zhejiang Party Secretary: “China has made great progress in its development”, Xi had said then, “but we still have a long way to go.”

It is China’s core interest to secure global peace and stability and to promote global development and prosperity. Anything less would be self-limiting, inhibiting China’s capacity to continue to improvethe standards of living of its own people. Toachieve President Xi’s “Chinese Dream” as ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’, China requires international stability and mutual development.

The Silk Road Economic Belt strategyarticulates well with China’s overarching foreign policy—in fact, it actualizes President Xi’s innovative foreign policy. I look for the Silk Road Economic Belt to play an increasingly active role in generating and symbolizing a ‘new world order’ for the benefit of all humanity.


Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an international corporate strategist and investment banker, is the author of How China’s Leaders Think and the biography of former President Jiang Zemin. Kuhn is a commentator on BBC, CCTV, Bloomberg, and other media, and a featured essayist in China Daily and the South China Morning Post.

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