Can Belt and Road Survive COVID-19?

Back in May 20, 2020, I attended a webinar by Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. The webinar brought up the topic of BRI and COVID-19: Is China’s Project of the Century Adapting or Atrophying? The speaker for this webinar was Min Ye, an Associate Professor of International Relations from Boston University.

Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies event.

The webinar started with a reflection on why did China pursue the BRI in late 2013. Min Ye offers her perspective as to why China did it. There are three motivations identified by Min Ye. First, strategic motivation. The US-China rivalry and America’s initiative to build the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) across the Asia Pacific serve as a catalyst to China’s initiative to build the Silk Road economic belt. Second, diplomatic motivation. China’s tensions with regional neighbors serve as an impetus to China’s initiative to revive the Maritime Silk Road. Third, economic motivation. The industrial overcapacity at home has brought China into a realization that it needs to “export” its production. The country came up with an initiative similar to that of the Marshall Plan — a Chinese Marshall Plan — and calls it the Belt and Road Initiative.

The discussion that follows was on China’s way to implement the BRI. Min Ye explains that the implementation of BRI in China and abroad is helped by all elements of bureaucracies, local governments, and private companies.

The presentation continues with the priorities and strands of BRI. In the first Belt and Road Forum — formally known as the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation — back in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping focuses on the narrative that BRI is the “project of the century”. Two years later, in the second Belt and Road Forum, Xi Jinping highlights the role of BRI in promoting “sustainable development”. Min Ye also noted that since 2016, the Chinese government has mobilized its efforts to build the Health Silk Road. In addition to that, the Chinese government is also interested to develop the Digital Silk Road.

Min Ye then takes the Health Silk Road as a case study for the development of Belt and Road over the years. She starts by talking about one of the earliest form of cooperation on health within the Belt and Road context. In 2015, China’s State Health Planning Commission published the Three-Year Action Plan. In 2016, Xi Jinping launched and spoke at Health BRI Forum. The forum as attended by medical scientists and public health specialists. The spheres of cooperation include (health) education, medicine, health emergency, infectious disease prevention, health development aid, traditional medicine, and health management in China and BRI partner countries. In 2017, the Belt and Road Public Health Cooperation Network and Health Policy Research Network were established.

She then identifies three groups of scholars that have different policy ideas for China’s BRI development — especially in regards to health cooperation. First, the pessimists. Scholars who belong to the pessimist group believes that China should invest in diplomacy to de-escalate the great power rivalry with the United States. Second, the optimists. Those who belong to this camp advocate for China’s leadership in public health, technology, and crisis management. Third, the pragmatists. The pragmatists believe that China should focus on saving itself — and help world’s recovery.

Concluding her comprehensive presentation, Min Ye argues that there will be no major shift in the global political economic order. China’s motivation to continue to work on BRI is there to stay. Secondly, she argues that BRI needs important adjustment to fit new realities at home (in China) and abroad. Thirdly, in order to truly understand China, it is not enough to only learn China from distance. She herself repeatedly mentioned throughout the presentation that she needs to go to China to understand a number of things that she does not know yet at the moment — and therefore, she advises the attendees of the webinar to do the same in order to understand China better!

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