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The Symbolic Politics of China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative

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China’s “One Belt, One Road” (often called “OBOR”) initiative aims to invest hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure linking Eurasia and Africa via land and sea routes. At a time when the Trump Administration wants to decrease American overseas investment and engagement, analysts often see OBOR through the lens of “great game” politics. At The Diplomat, Paul Musgrave and I argue for more attention to the symbolic dimensions of OBOR—as a way for Xi Jinping to legitimate his rule.

The notion that a government would sink tremendous sums into voyages with no self-evident strategic purpose might seem implausible. But Americans in particular should recognize how governments facing threats to their prestige and legitimacy might react with an almost wartime mobilization of resources. The United States spent in excess of $100 billion to put astronauts on the Moon after being embarrassed by Soviet space triumphs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Whatever the U.S. government’s public justifications, Apollo only had one goal, as U.S. President Kennedy told his advisers in private: to show that the United States could beat the Soviets at something in space.

Every time a new bridge, railroad, port, or highway is built, Xi will receive his foreign partners’ applause. Each headline that touts China’s sweeping foreign policy will burnish Xi’s claims to world leadership. With rewards like that, why worry if the bridges lead to nowhere?

Our argument builds from a forthcoming article, which I think I’ve mentioned before, that compares the American Moon missions to the Ming treasure fleets. The interesting thing here is that Beijing’s rhetoric on OBOR makes reference to Zheng He’s travels—as examples of China’s history of overseas engagement, trade, and participation in global cultural exchange. But, as we argue in that paper, these expeditions almost certainly were intended for domestic political purposes. That’s some crazy recursiveness.

Image by User:Vmenkov (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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