Strengthening the Cultural and Normative Foundations of the Belt and Road Initiative: The Colombo Plan, Yan Xuetong and Chinese Ancient Thought



Despite the widespread acceptance of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), the latter still faces some challenges. First, China’s rise is as rampant as opaque and thus this Chinese foreign policy agenda has been met with suspicion due to its lack of detailed content. Second, for some countries, the BRI is essentially a new example of colonialism through which China is paving its way to access energy sources and markets both necessary to keep fueling its spectacular economic growth. Third, changes in political leadership in some of the countries along the Belt have turned the tables against Chinese investment accusing the latter of buying out countries. In turn, this jeopardizes the economic sustainability of Chinese investment. In this chapter, I suggest two ways in which China can try to change and correct these critical perceptions on the BRI. I propose that the cultural exchange and people-to-people ties side of the project is given more prominence. However, and by means of a comparison with the now forgotten Colombo Plan as well as the Australian New Colombo Plan, I advocate that China should avoid a type of one-way cultural exchange in which it tells other countries about itself without showing deep and sustained cultural interest in the “Other”. I also suggest that if China wants to exercise a distinctive style of normative leadership it ought to develop the philosophy and values of its BRI. Because there are important resources in Chinese thinking to ground this claim, I resort to the work of Yan Xuetong who recovers the idea that a moral leader converts the hearts of others rather than winning them by different power resources. Altogether, these claims promise to create a more sustainable and appealing cultural and normative vision of the New Silk Road.



I gratefully acknowledge the support of China Postdoctoral Science Foundation grant no. 2016M592767. A version of this chapter was presented at the conference “Road to New Paradigms: Impact of China’s Silk Road Initiative in China, Central Asia and the EU” held jointly by different institutions of XJTU and Helsinki University taking place in Helsinki, May 9–10 2016. I thank the participants for their comments. The chapter benefited greatly from Gabriele Escoffier, Walter Rech, Goncalo Vilaça, Su Bian and three referees’ detailed comments and feedback. All errors remain mine.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights, Helsinki UniversityHelsinkiFinland
  2. 2.The Collaborative Innovation Centre for Silk Road Economic Belt Studies (CIC-SREBS)Xi’an Jiaotong UniversityXi’anPeople’s Republic of China

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