Murmurs are rising with the United States sending a delegate to attend a conference for China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” program, which is an advanced infrastructure venture aiming to construct overland roads connecting China to Europe, similar to the ancient Silk Road. The project is awakening old whispers that have been forgotten for the majority of the Trump presidency. More than anything, “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) symbolizes the end of the United States’ tenure as the sole world superpower.
However, there are signs pointing to this transition as already manifest. According to Mellichamp Professor of Global Studies Jan Nederveen-Pieterse, “China already has ‘economic hegemony’ in that it is the leading trade partner of nearly every country.” While the World Economic Forum says that the United States may, as of 2017, still possess 24.3% of the world economy, that number is in danger of being eclipsed by China (14.8%). Furthermore, the fact that China has real and tangible plans for undertaking OBOR shows that it has an advanced and adaptable government that knows best how to navigate the political mire of today.
This goes beyond a fear of economic power: It is a fear of loss of hegemony. Hegemony is domination, pure and simple. A hegemon wields uncontested influence over various realms, such as politics, culture, and economics. All are measured against the hegemon, whom they regard as the main locus point of power. The United States, with its vast military and economic capabilities, has enjoyed such a position. It has guided the direction of world affairs for the last 20 years.
Historically speaking, hegemony is nothing new. There always has been a center from which the flow of trade and culture have been directed. The decline in American soft power, however, represents the first time in over two hundred years that a “Western” nation will not be under control. It is thanks to that same historical view of hegemony that we come to understand that, in the past, world affairs were dominated by the desire to do business with the Orient.
For example: the old Silk Road and the travels of Marco Polo. The voyages of Columbus and Magellan. All were taken to penetrate the veil separating the riches of Asia from old Europe. Asia was a land of fabulous wealth and untapped knowledge, and it was the focal point for global affairs. Of course the emperors of China and Japan were aware of this, selectively allowing only a small few the chance to trade with them. That is hegemony and power: having the ability to not only choose who you will trade with, but to drive everyone to want to trade with you in the first place.
In the past 20 years that the United States has held uncontested power over the world, financial policy has been built around the so-called Washington Consensus, where nations must come to favor the growth of the private sector over their own government. The United States, as defender of free-for-all capitalism and free trade, has bequeathed a legacy of economic insecurity.
China’s new economic policy, ironically enough, is an echo of America’s past exaltation of free trade. However, it should not be mistaken for quite the same model. Instead of finance, China prefers large global infrastructure projects, as shown by the Belt and Road Initiative. Rather than link the world through a common ideology of trade and exchange, China seeks to physically link the world. Its promise is that the project will invite people of the world to partake into a new age of economic growth, and that the countries through whom the Road winds through will be the recipients of new opportunities and riches.
Skepticism is understandable. After all, did the United States not promise the same thing with free trade? They did, and for many Americans, it’s better to go with the devil they know than the devil they don’t. For the rest of the world, however, history is not easily forgotten, especially when they remember how American neoliberalism often hindered their own development.