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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative

by Professor Yang Jiemian

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Professor Yang Jiemian is Chairman, Council of SIIS Academic Affairs, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. This is an edited version of his keynote speech at CEIBS 3rd Europe Forum 2017 in London on July 6.

"It is my great honour and privilege to share with you some of my thoughts on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). I was trained as a political scientist, not a professor of business or economics. [Speaking with you today] reminds me of a story of an ancient Chinese poet from about 1,500 years ago – forgive me, Chinese like to say something [from the old days]. Every time the famous Chinese poet Bai Juyi wrote a poem, he would recite it to an eccentric old lady in the village. If she couldn't understand what he was talking about he would then publish the poem. Two years ago, I was invited by a vice prime minister of a country participating in the Belt and Road Initiative. He said to me, 'Professor Yang, I'm very busy, please tell me what it is all about in one minute'. I said, 'The Belt and Road Initiative is basically economic-focussed but needs political, strategic, and cultural foundations, with an aim to build a common community with a shared future. That's it.'

I come from Shanghai, there are buildings there that are very reminiscent of Great Britain, and now we have something in common. That is, we want to take advantage of this great initiative. It has been almost four years since President Xi Jinping proposed the Belt and Road Initiative. It is still evolving, so there is much yet to come. However the reason why the Belt and Road International Cooperation Forum received attention worldwide is because it is already having tangible and encouraging results. So I would like to highlight four things being discussed here today.

There is an English expression, 'the early bird catches the worm'. The Chinese idiom 'whoever runs fast and first will get the results', more or less has the same meaning. So first, the Belt and Road Initiative focusses on economic cooperation. Economic cooperation means we can only get the benefits and gains when we get an early start. Only those who start first, and have a strategic vision can achieve more than the others. For instance, when the Belt and Road Initiative was first begun, Great Britain was not on the map, the initiative stopped at Düsseldorf. But the British were very smart and they said, 'We have the British Northern Engine Programme and we could match it with the Belt and Road Initiative', and when these two leaders came together we made it happen. Nowadays, people are calling for immediate and tangible benefits, which is very important. If you tell people you can reap the harvest in 10 years, nobody will want to follow you. You must give them the early harvest. This is in our strategic consideration as well. So therefore an early harvest is necessary both to convince supporters and demonstrate [what is ahead for] the future.

The other day I had the opportunity to talk with a Chinese CEO, the owner of a private business, who started Yiwu and the London Cargo Railway Links. He was very pleased that, thanks to joint support from the Chinese and British sides, we were able to build it. Through the BRI, China-Britain can not only generate more markets, investments, and jobs, but also show the world their unique perspectives and wisdom. The direct cargo railway service between Yiwu and London is a good example with immediate gains, and their financial cooperation holds far-reaching significance. This is not only a matter of economic benefits.

Second, the Belt and Road Initiative strives for policy coordination, interconnectivity and people-to-people exchanges. In addition to economic cooperation, cooperation in finance, investment, infrastructure and China-Britain plus, we could cooperate [in other areas]. Just now [China's] Ambassador [to the UK] Liu [Xiaoming] spoke about common law in Pakistan, and we could have very good cooperation in English-speaking African countries, just to give one example. These efforts can represent building blocks for the future architecture. Therefore, our respective and joint strategies and policies should be of stability, predictability and sustainability, but most of all compatibility. Furthermore, people-to-people exchanges provide the basis for a deeper and better understanding of each other. For instance, thanks to the extensive and intensive exchanges between Shanghai and London, the image of the latter has totally changed.  Usually in our minds the British and London are stiff or reserved, but now have become dynamic and innovative. Thanks to the World Expo 2010, your pavilion gave the Chinese such a good impression.

Third, we are [working] in tandem, and should pool our resources. China proposed the initiative, but expects to join efforts with all the relevant parties for planning, consultation and building to achieve a win-win end. On the one hand China is still a developing country; people might laugh, but Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing are only part of [China]. Go to Guizhou, go to Sichuan, then you can better appreciate why we say we are still a developing country. We have limited experience in promoting this unprecedented BRI mega-project. People often ask me when the Chinese language will be as popularly used as English, and I say it will be at least 200 years. The British Empire, the American hegemony, happen to be using English together. I have been studying English my whole life, so far only so good – so we still have a long way to go. On the other hand, Britain has a long history of interacting with the world. It is easy for us to set up a business, for us to establish a technical, new, high-tech park; it is more difficult to set up joint ventures which have the guidance and enlightenment for our people and for the younger generations to come. Our two countries are located at both ends of the Belt and Road Initiative. China and Britain complement each other, especially when it comes to strategic planning, pragmatic business, the high end of the economy and multilateral cooperation.

My fourth thought: strategic consultation and [partnership].  The Belt and Road Initiative could garner the best possible achievements only by [participants] docking with each other's plan, such as the British Northern Engine Programme, the German Industry 4.0 Strategic Initiative, the Sunny Road of Kazakhstan, and the Grassland Road of Mongolia.

Furthermore, China and Britain could draw benefits from expanding our coordination with the programmes of other Belt and Road Initiative participants. Britain was among the first of several major western countries to join the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; with your joining, and AIIB Australia, others followed in. Moreover, larger scale economic cooperation implies more strategic and diplomatic coordination is also happening.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we often say, the future is bright but the road is not straight. I am here in Britain, I do not want to flatter you [by] saying there are no bad or negative effects for Brexit; to me there are.

To conclude, China and Britain are two important actors in the present world, and they complement each other in many ways. China and Britain, as a joint driving force, could work together in institution building, rule-making, advanced research and closer networking. Indeed the collective cooperation would achieve far more than individual efforts for the BRI.

Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know whether by using one minute or 20 minutes I explained it well and clearly to you.

Thank you very much for your attention."