In the meeting between President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing, President Ranil stressed the importance of Sri Lanka for the overarching success of the BRI as an active member state from the very beginning.
President Ranil’s position in the BRI throws a more nuanced and timely light on China’s grand strategy than a mere aphorism. The fact that China places Sri Lanka in a unique position in its foreign policy platter relates to the island nation’s geopolitical significance for the ultimate triumph of Belt and Road Initiative(BRI), which is often described as China’s “Grand Strategy”. The concept of “Grand Strategy” has been developed parallel to military strategy as a distinct principle aiming to foster other means beyond warfare in attaining a higher victory for a state.
Celebrated military strategist Basil Liddle Hart traces the genesis of this concept to the modus opperandi deployed by famous Athenian statesmen Pericles in the advent of Peloponnesian War in the 4th century BC. In contrast to a direct military strategy, which seeks to dislocate the military balance of the rival powers, a grand strategy refers to the use of both military and non-military means to accomplish national interests in the long run. When Athens was outnumbered by the mighty infantry forces of the Spartan-led Peloponnesian league, Pericles opted for his grand strategy with the aim of draining the enemy’s endurance in order to convince him that he could not gain a decision.
China’s grand strategy dates back to the inception of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 as its leaders focused on Chinese history, in particular the wisdom of Sun Tzu, who authored “ The Art of War” in the 6th century BC. The meticulous analysis drawn by Sun Tzu epitomizes ultimate victory as winning the enemy without waging war and the current Chinese strategic thinking seems to have inspired from these intellectual contours.
From the beginning China’s key strategic objectives have rotated around three pillars consisting of preserving China’s national security, protecting national sovereignty and maintaining international conditions for China’s economic development. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) started in 2013 is the cornerstone of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, which aims at attaining Pax Sinica by 2050 would manifest China’s global governance. History shows, that there are two main paths to securing global hegemony. The first one is related to the use of military force aligned with the economic force and the second one embodies the use of both economic and ideas in securing the global hegemony, in which the military strength comes as the last resort. Both Pax Roma and Pax Britannica cemented their power on the pillars of the first path, whereas the American empire that emerged in the post-war era represents the ethos of the second path.
The question that comes to the fore is how China presents Belt and Road Imitative as its grand strategy containing the features from the second path. If BRI’s two-pronged strategies are successfully carried out, at around 2050, it is likely that there is a future world order governed by China. Pax-Sinica will be different from the current global order, with all signs showing that China is revising the existing global order and initiating counterparts of its own. The 2050 Pax-Sinica, should it appear, will be dominated by China’s economic primacy and China’s version of an ideational value system seen as universal. It remains uncertain what the power of the “ideas” offered by China will be beyond 2050. Would Pax-Sinica world remain democratic or authoritarian? Would the world economic structure still be capitalism? Would China transform into a different polity, over the next three decades, and with it, itself, into a global leader?
The answers to the questions raised above are yet to be unfolded by the course of the development of BRI. In a world where American liberalism still prevails as the grand narrative displaying its special characteristics such as human rights, good governance and the rule of law, the depiction of BRI lacks universal legitimacy. The famous slogan articulated by Chinese leader Xi Jinping is “building a community of a common destiny”, which captivates many of its partner states as a broader version of globalization that fundamentally differs from Western typed development.
However, many critics in the West debunks Xi’s aphorism as a sheer geopolitical project intending to pressurise poor countries through a large array of debt trap for the fulfilment of Beijing’s political and economic demands. From such a point of view, BRI is nothing more than a neo-colonial project that hastens China’s ascendency to the global stage. To counter, these polemics, China produces an alternative vision called “Global Civilizational Initiative”, presented in last March as China’s one of core blueprints in transforming the global order. Under the guise of so called “Global Civilizational Initiative” China further bolsters its BRI and its partnership with the member states, which will eventually alter the current world order. Therefore, it is obvious that Belt and Road Initiative continues as China’s “Grand Strategy”.
Despite its stringent mechanism expanded through BRI, China knows fully well that its naval strength is to no avail to that of the U.S. yet. China will not provoke direct military confrontation with the U.S. on the sea. Instead, it will adopt a defensive posture. There is not likely a change of leadership in the Maritime Asia Pacific, or an elimination of the rising power in the foreseeable future. The relationship of the power dichotomy in the maritime Asia Pacific will be categorized as one of status quo, despite of the spite of verbal tensions.
Given its perennial value blended with the old maritime silk route legacy, China places Sri Lanka in the apex position of its maritime strategy and it should be the main concern of Sri Lankan policymakers to obtain the benefit from an acute strategic partnership with Beijing. As President Ranil Wickremasinghe remarked in the recently concluded BRI summit, Sri Lanka carries a greater importance to the whole success of BRI. The Belt and Road initiative, being China’s grand strategy elevates the position of the People’s Republic of China into a global influencer as the revival “of “All Under Heaven” ( tian-xia), which used to be the old vision of grand strategy in the imperial China.