Transcript of Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng’s Exclusive Interview with the Financial Times
On 10 September 2018, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng sat down with Jamil Anderlini, the Asia Editor of the Financial Times, for an exclusive interview. The following is the full transcript:
Jamil Anderlini: This idea of the Marshall Plan, you hear this over and over. The government in Beijing says the Belt and Road Initiative shouldn’t be compared to the Marshall Plan. But many people still say it’s similar. It’s a lot of spending on infrastructure and it helps improve the image of China around the world. It’s all done in peacetime. So isn’t there some similarities? Or not.
Le Yucheng: It may appear that the two initiatives have something in common, as they are both about investment in infrastructure in peacetime. But other than that, they cannot be more different. First, time-line wise, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is older and also younger than the Marshall Plan. Older because it draws inspiration from the spirit of the ancient Silk Road with over 2000 years of history, hence the modern version of the Silk Road. It is younger than the Marshall Plan, because it was conceived in the 21st century, an era of globalization, and born out of opening-up and cooperation.
Secondly, the Marshall Plan was introduced during the Cold War dominated by rivalry between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Therefore, it had clear geopolitical and ideological goals. The BRI, on the other hand, focuses on economic cooperation and connectivity.
In September 2013, President Xi Jinping first proposed the BRI, the “Silk Road Economic Belt”, during his speech at the Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. I was there as the Chinese Ambassador. After the speech, President Nazarbayev expressed his clear support and applauded the proposal. That was the earliest international support that the BRI has received.
Why did President Xi choose to announce this initiative in Kazakhstan? First of all, Kazakhstan is a major country in central Asia. After all the turbulence and conflicts following the breakup of the former Soviet Union, stability has taken hold in Central Asia in 2013 and people there longed for development and cooperation. Secondly, central Asia is the land route linking China to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Such a backdrop shows that the BRI was proposed for economic cooperation and connectivity.
Another feature sets the BRI apart from the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan drew a clear line at Western European countries and not including the former Soviet Union and those in Eastern Europe. But the BRI follows the principle of consultation, cooperation and benefits for all, featuring broad participation. This is determined by China’s foreign policy characterized by peaceful development and win-win cooperation, and means to provide a platform to explore the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.
In today’s world, we see a trend of rising protectionism, unilateralism, bullying and anti-globalization. We hope to pool strengths for closer international cooperation through the BRI. It is highly relevant given the current international landscape, and represents a useful effort in building a more fair and equitable new international order and in the reform of the global governance structure.
Jamil Anderlini: Thinking about this idea of soft power and China’s influence of power around the world. Do you think the Belt and Road is on balance enhancing China’s soft power or hurting China’s soft power right now?
Le Yucheng: The implementation of the BRI in the past five years shows how it has caught on internationally. We held the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in May last year, which attracted unprecedented representation of over 140 countries and 80 international organizations, including leaders from 29 countries.
Europe is an important partner for the BRI. Eight leaders of European countries and representatives from the UK, France, Germany and the EU attended last year’s Belt and Road Forum. So far, we haven’t heard any single European leader opposing the BRI. French President Macron expressed his support and interest during his visit to China last January. Philip Hammond, Special Envoy for the British Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, described the UK as a natural partner for the BRI when addressing last year’s forum. Others have said that the BRI is a bridge for China-Europe cooperation, not a high wall.
During the 20th China-EU Summit last July, the two sides agreed to create greater synergy between the BRI and EU’s development initiatives, including the Investment Plan for Europe and the Trans-European Transport Networks. The UK has set up a City Expert Board for BRI cooperation. Twenty-five European countries, including the UK, France and Germany, have joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has close ties with the BRI.
The just-concluded Beijing Summit of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was attended by 51 African leaders, including 40 presidents, 10 prime ministers, and one vice president. They all spoke highly of the BRI. Up to date, 37 African countries have signed agreements or MOUs with China on BRI cooperation, taking the total number to over 130.
Many countries see the BRI as an opportunity and a platform for closer cooperation with China, including Latin American countries. Originally, the BRI did not extend to Latin America. But they say Chinese porcelain was discovered there, showing that they are also part of the BRI. This speaks to the interest of many to be partners of the BRI.
The BRI has been warmly welcomed to an extent that has far exceeded our expectations. Let me share with you an anecdote. When President Nazarbayev was in Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum and saw the level of attendance, he asked the Chinese leader if China had ever expected such strong attraction and impact of the BRI when it was first announced. The Chinese leader said, yes and no. Yes, because the BRI is in line with China’s development stage and responds to the trend of the times as well as the aspirations of people across the world. But what we didn’t expect is this overwhelming support. That answer really shows how the BRI has caught on.