The Beijing Consensus – China’s Foreign Policy throughout the New Silk Road

Agnieszka Wiśniewska – As the Belt and Road Initiative becomes a reality, its scope and depth requires China to formulate a clear set of foreign policy principles. The Beijing Consensus has served as an umbrella term encompassing a variety of plans, frameworks and ideas originating from the Chinese leadership. However, does this ‘China model’ really form a comprehensive entity?

With the Belt and Road Initiative’s ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ moving steadily forward, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has affirmed his cabinet’s commitment to alleviate poverty in accordance with China’s model.

However, the ‘China model’ (often stylized as the Beijing Consensus) is a fuzzy term, build equally on its supposed opposition to the ‘American/Western model’ (commonly known as the Washington Consensus) and the personal political paradigms of subsequent Communist Party of China’s Secretary Generals. The reforms initiated in the PRC by Deng Xiaoping formed the base of the model – the ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ –   by bringing a balance between the country’s Maoist past and challenges specific to the pragmatic modernization of China. Currently, the CPC’s General Secretary eagerly employs this concept to underpin the intensified relations established across the renewed Silk Road.

Therefore, the future of the China model depends on how Xi Jinping decides to use this holistic template throughout the Belt and Road Initiative. The Beijing Consensus, as developed by the General Secretary, echoes by its opposition to the Washington Consensus. Xi frequently underlines non-interference and flexibility as its guiding principles – particularity and country-to-country differences are to be encouraged. Such an approach, aided by President Trump’s perceived unreliability, resonated with the heterogeneity of developing states. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the PRC will ever be able to convince the developed socially and economically Westernised Asian democracies – Japan and South Korea – of the merits of its model in a foreseeable future. In addition, with Xi steadily tightening his personal power, the promotion of the ‘Chinese way’ as a system that values social stability and fair governance risks a loss of credibility. Two interlinked developments point into that direction.

With the Beijing Consensus challenging the  political and economic dominance of the US, it can give an impression of situating China as a potential partner for Europe – which, faced with Trump’s excesses, feels increasingly left on its own. However, grand geopolitical schemes have to be based on ideals acceptable to its receivers. China, unable to resolve the deficiencies of its international soft power, continues to be distrusted by the West. The increasing speculations over Xi’s “Mao-like” amassment of power strengthen the European leaders’ perception of a Beijing Consensus that serves first and foremost the personal agenda of the General Secretary.

Moreover, even aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative designed to foster international communication and understanding ultimately prioritize technical skills diffusion and personnel training. The University Alliance of the Silk Road (UASR), which groups around 150 institutions, is charged with promoting academic cooperation but acts mainly as a value-oriented project realizing a purely practical objective: assisting the implementation of the new Silk Road. It is visible by the locations of the participating organisations as well. Most of them can be found in Central Asia (an immediate area of interest within the Belt and Road) and Russia; only a handful are in South Korea and Europe with only a single one in the United States. The UASR indicates a China focused on its leadership’s flagship project rather than consciously promoting any alternative model.

Finally, the Beijing Consensus shares one important characteristic with its Washington counterpart – it is based on a hegemonic paradigm, albeit with a different set of rules. Changes within the US-Europe international system can become a chance to focus on grassroots initiatives and local expectations in different regions instead of lumping them into a bloc by default. Theories of everything (whether China or America-led) are prone to stratification, clientelism and hierarchism as nations cluster around their respective patrons. Therefore, antique-inspired infrastructural colossi aside, it is worth to consider whether the China model offers genuinely new solutions.

Image: Pexels, photo by Hitesh Choudhary

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Agnieszka Wiśniewska

Agnieszka Wiśniewska is a third-year Bachelor student in Political Science and European Studies at the Maastricht University. Originally from Poland, she is currently in exchange at the Universität Zürich.

awisniewska7313@gmail.com