At the National People’s Congress last week, China announced its grand strategy to win in a post-pandemic world. While much of the media’s attention focuses on anti-democratic measures against Hong Kong, the more momentous steps may be China’s attempts to increase connectivity abroad and cultural homogeneity at home. Both are likely to backfire.
China’s signature foreign policy is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a series of infrastructure projects by land and sea to link Asia, Africa, and Europe, which will cost an estimated $1.3 trillion. To this, China has now added a plan for a “Polar Silk Road” for faster arctic shipping routes. Arguably, China’s most consequential domestic policy is its attempts to impose greater cultural uniformity on its ethnic minorities. On the surface, these policies have made China stronger and more united. But scratch the surface and these plans are imprudent, the wrong wagers at the wrong time.
Why? Connectivity is politically neutral; it only accelerates and amplifies underlying trends. The same roads Rome built to conquer the world allowed the world to sack Rome. American help with German infrastructure projects neither pacified the country before World War II nor hampered its postwar pacifism. We live in a decentralizing age, where large states are getting rarer, more fragmented, and more introverted. Forging economic links and immense national identities cut against prevailing currents. China may row upstream for a time, but it will exhaust its strength without reaching its goal.
Instead of being a force multiplier for China, these policies will be force dividers for international and domestic reasons. Internationally, they are likely to lose friends and alienate states. Certainly, that will not be the case across the board; China is a powerful country, and that power will inevitably exert an attractive pull in many places. Yet magnetic attraction always brings repellent force, too; states tend to balance against power. Countries sympathetic to autocracy, dazzled by corruption, and indifferent to domestic oppression will align with China, but many others will not, and they will tend to be the more powerful states. Indeed, that process is already underway. Japan and India have announced their Asia-Africa Growth Corridor to counter the BRI, and politicians in places like Malaysia have won anti-BRI campaigns.