Belt and Road Initiative: China’s Global Game Changer?

September 11, 2017
Asia Beyond the Headlines poster

The new Asia Center Series, Asia Beyond the Headlines, takes a deeper look at urgent, contemporary issues that cut across Asia. In the inaugural presentation on Thursday, September 14, leading scholars will put China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the context of analogous programs that have changed human history. The land portion of Belt and Road attempts to recreate the glory of the old Silk Road and the reshaping of the Eurasian political economy by one of history’s greatest globalizer, Genghis Khan, who eliminated barriers and for the first time created common standards for all ethnicities and nationalities.

Harvard Vice Provost of International Affairs Mark Elliott will explore analogies between BRI and the old Silk Road. Similarly, Harvard Fairbank Center Director Michael Szonyi will compare the maritime BRI to the explorations of Chinese Admiral Zheng He in the 1400s. Asia Center Senior Fellow William Overholt will argue, controversially, that BRI is in critical ways an extension of the Bretton Woods system that won the Cold War for the U.S. The session will be chaired by Harvard-Yenching Institute Director Elizabeth Perry, who will call attention to South Asian precedents for BRI.

“The idea is very fundamental,” Overholt said. “BRI taps into a history of things that have utterly transformed the world, and this one might too.” BRI is a global initiative and development strategy launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping to invest enormous amounts of capital in infrastructure improvements in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, Europe, and the Maritime counterparts.

For his argument, Overholt hinted that the success of the U.S. economic strategy after the Cold War, and Japan’s subsequent rise, helped to spread globalization to Northeast and Southeast Asia and ultimately to China. But he sees China’s success as hinging on its global strategy.

Thursday’s “One Belt/One Road in Historical and Global Context” seminar is the first of three seminars planned for the fall semester by the Asia Center as part of its Asia Beyond the Headlines seminar series. The series follows the Asia Center’s successful series, Critical Issues Confronting China, for which its cosponsor, Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is now the sole sponsor. Unlike the Critical Issues Confronting China series, which focuses on issues relevant specifically to China, Asia Beyond the Headlines shifts the contemporary issue focus to Asia, not just one country, crossing borders and regional boundaries.

“We realized there’s a yearning for deep insights by the best people on contemporary issues,” Overholt said. “We’ve picked a series of issues that are crucial to the whole region.”

Following the historical and global perspective on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Asia Beyond the Headlines seminar then follows with an October seminar focusing on the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. In November, the Asia Beyond the Headlines seminar focuses on civil society evolving in Asian societies.

“One Belt/One Road in Historical and Global Context”, the Asia Beyond the Headlines seminar, takes place Thursday, September 14, at 4:15 p.m. in S020, Japan Friends of Harvard Concourse, CGIS South, 1730 Cambridge St., Cambridge.