BRI: Vehicle for global cooperation, peace

This time of the year, nearly 200 years ago, Britain declared war on China for refusing to accept trade in narcotics, which were having a serious social and economic burden on the Asian country, then ruled by the Qing dynasty.

Britain got tea, silks and porcelain while itself had no valuable commodities to match.

To offset this imbalance between the poor resources of Britain and the rich endowments of China, British merchants became a scheme to smuggle opium from India to sell to China, which would launder money to pay for trade.

China refused this and the Opium Wars arose from China’s attempts to suppress the opium trade which had resulted in widespread addiction in China and causing serious social and economic disruption there.

According to historical accounts, in spring 1839 the Chinese government confiscated and destroyed more than 20 000 chests of opium – some 1 400 tonnes of the drug – that were warehoused at Canton (Guangzhou) by British merchants, leading to the first Opium War (1839-42) and after a period of lull, the second Opium War (1856-60) took place, with France joining Britain to attack China.

This is a major historical blot on how Western countries used plunder and repression to establish power and economic dominance.

But that is not all.

Only less than 50 years later both Britain and France participated in the Berlin Colonial conference (1884-6) where Western powers, including Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain sat down and carved out so-called spheres of influence following the Scramble for Africa.

Britain would later colonise Zimbabwe, among other many other African countries, hewing out a reputation as the biggest imperial power.

There is a deep contrast that needs to be illustrated here. While both China and Zimbabwe were victims of European imperialism, the two civilisations of China and Zimbabwe had contact dating back to six centuries when they traded with each other.

The two civilisations would thrive before the plunder occasioned by the avaricious Western countries, with the Portuguese first destroying Great Zimbabwe in the 17th century, followed by British colonialism in the 19th.

Belt and Road Initiative marks 10 years: The significance

The above historical iteration is important in not only highlighting the iniquitous nature of European contact with other civilisations. It also provides a template that the Western countries have barely moved away from, characterised by plundering less powerful nations for their own preservation and wealth.

However, the rise of China has brought an alternative worldview and practical cooperation among nations, a model plucked from China’s own history. In2013, President Xi Jinping first introduced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a transcontinental framework of trade and cooperation involving huge projects that benefit countries within the corridor.

BRI has been dubbed the “21st Century Silk Road”, as a reference to the ancient trade routes that China cooperated with the world. To date,  over three quarters of countries around the world and 32 international organisations have joined the BRI.

Over the past decade, the BRI has galvanised nearly US$1 trillion of investment, established more than 3 000 cooperation projects, created 420 000 local jobs, and helped lift almost 40 million people out of poverty.

The initiative is fashioned to comprise of several maritime and overland trade routes, encompassing Asia, Eurasia, Middle East, Africa and Americas.

It is stated that the BRI has continued to develop and now accounts for hundreds of routes and thousands of projects around the world. Zimbabwe became part of BRI in 2018 and benefits that have accrued to the country include major construction projects and investments by large Chinese companies.

Key cooperation projects undertaken in the BRI era include the completion of the National pharmaceutical Warehouse, 1000 Borehole Project, Kariba South Hydro and Hwange Thermal Power stations; expansion and upgrades of Victoria Falls and Robert Mugabe international airports as well as financing of telecommunications infrastructure.

China’s investments in Zimbabwe in the context of the BRI have become an integral part of the southern African country’s development agenda, while it is the same for  others that are part of the matrix. BRI itself recognises Africa’s development goals through the Agenda 2063 of the African Union.

During a visit to China in 2018 where President Mnangagwa met his counterpart, Xi Jinping, the two sides agreed to deepen cooperation within the BRI and Forum on China Africa Cooperation (Focac) frameworks.

While this cooperation represents strategic and progressive cooperation between the two sides, it is also notable that such cooperation is happening at a time Zimbabwe has been under attack from Western countries through sanctions. China firmly opposes these sanctions.

Further, in 2008, China used its veto power at the United Nations Security Council to stop sanctions on Zimbabwe that could as well have led to military invasion under dubious circumstances. This is the first time China used the veto power for the African country.

Efforts by Zimbabwe to reengage and reset relations with the West, including full and equitable economic cooperation, have not yielded results.

No doubt, Western countries are stuck in old imperialist and destructive mindset. By contrast, China is cooperating, making friendship and assisting peaceful development.

This makes China’s BRI an important policy.

Article first appeared in The Herald

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