China-led Development Policy in Asia
At the 2015 Xinjiang Development Forum in Urumqi, foreign and local academics debated regional development plans under the rubric of the Silk Road Economic Belt. A take-home message from the Forum is that China is making a new mark on the framing of development policy in Asia. Whether foreign or domestic, supportive or combative, speakers at the Forum employed the Silk Road Economic Belt concept.
The significance of this should not be understated. Domestic and regional development, both economic and political, has over the last century been dominated by concepts developed in, and from, the experiences of the now advanced economies of Western Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia. The launch of the Silk Road Economic Belt concept shows this may be changing.
At first glance, however, it is hard to determine where the Silk Road Economic Belt diverges from existing development initiatives. Nothing in the proposition to build infrastructure, transportation links, improve trade, capital and people connectivity or to harmonise regulatory systems appears particularly unique; infrastructure investment and economic connectivity are hardly radical new initiatives.
But the policy emphasis of the Silk Road Economic Belt is different and so is its genesis.
China has been cultivating a policy space previously the exclusive realm of advanced economies. On the back of its own impressive growth and development it has put forward policy that stresses mutual development and economics first.
While these ideas are not new, (advanced economies have promoted economic growth and international integration for centuries), Western scholars and policymakers promote these ideas within an increasingly complex and challenging set of development paradigms that include measures of good governance, rule of law, democracy and civil participation. In contrast, China’s stripped back promotion of economic development is highly attractive to state and non-state actors in many parts of the developing world. We should recognise and acknowledge this attraction in order to participate in the development debate.
The flexible and experimental nature of Chinese policymaking is also new for many observers. While Silk Road Economic Belt policy documents are long and detailed, they are also incredibly broad and lack concrete projects. This reflects a hallmark of Chinese policymaking. Policy at the central government level often remains aspirational or vague allowing experimentation and interpretation at the local level before further refinement by central authorities. ‘Reform and Opening’, land and residency reform are classic examples of this style of flexible and evolutionary policymaking.
The Silk Road Economic Belt concept is framed in a similarly broad and flexible manner. While this makes it hard for Western democracies to know how or whether to participate, as an unanswerable question about what exactly they are committing to can act as a stumbling block, it also creates the opportunity, through engagement and participation, to influence the evolution of China-led development policy in Asia. Ignoring the new concept, forcing China to go it alone or not developing a collective response would fail to grasp this opportunity.
Australasian scholars and policymakers should therefore engage with the new China-led development policy in Asia to influence how the policy unfolds and to be directly involved in its projects.
And the door is currently open. China has invited participation from those on the Economic Belt (Central Asia, Middle East, Europe and Africa) as well as from those further abroad. A similar process is unfolding closer to home with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative.
Foreign scholars at the Forum in Urumqi were there to engage and were given the opportunity to present their ideas. They argued for a wide range of state and non-state actors to be consulted where projects affect them, that mechanisms to support good governance and accountability should be part of the initiative and that regional security concerns, such as terrorism, are acknowledged and cooperative mechanisms established to address them. They promoted a collaborative approach to regional development and stressed the importance of transparency, rule of law and democracy for long-term sustainable development.
When the largest and most well endowed economy in Asia presents a new vision of regional development, we should sit up and listen so as to be better able to engage with the initiative and proactively shape development outcomes in the region.