Deglobalisation Series | China: ‘restarting’ globalisation? by Chenmei Li

After benefiting from international trade and investment for the past 30 years, China’s global position is starting to change. This is perhaps most evident when regarding its position at the centre of an ongoing ‘trade war’ with the United States. Given its role as leader in international trade, will China be able to ‘restart’ globalisation and offer an alternative to globalisation and deglobalisation as defined by the West?

As developed countries appear to step back from globalisation, China senses an opportunity to step forward and set new rules for globalisation. A major component of the Chinese strategy to lead changes in how globalisation is thought of and practiced is the One Belt and One Road Initiative (OBOR) of the Chinese government. Aimed at improving infrastructure and connectivity between China and the world, this initiative comprises more than physical connections. The Chinese government argues that this initiative includes not just economic, but also socio-cultural linkages, ultimately leading to mutual benefits for all countries involved. The OBOR defines China’s idea of globalisation in a new era in which emerging economies backed by rising economic power and strong alliances are seeking greater influence on global issues.

Figure 1. Map of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, with China in red and the land (black) and sea (blue) routes indicated. Source:

China’s push for globalisation has evoked mixed reactions across the world, and Beijing has had to deal with multiple obstructions to its vision. Moreover, logistical and bureaucratic issues are plaguing countries participating in the OBOR. For instance, although China has signed bilateral cooperation agreements with Pakistan, Hungary, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkey, with a number of projects planned under those agreements, the proposed projects have not been implemented. Most such projects are infrastructure-related, for example a proposed train connection between eastern China and Iran, which eventually may be expanded to Europe. Powerful Western economies and neighbouring Asian giants have remained cautious in their assessments and acceptance of the initiative.

Sustaining the benefits of globalisation

An important motivation behind the OBOR is the endeavour to continue to benefit from globalisation. Since 1979, China has implemented an Opening and Reforming Strategy. However, its export in percentage of GDP (trade openness) in 1980 was only 5.9% and outward Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was 1.7 billion US dollars. Only after the 1990s China’s globalisation process really began. Joining the WTO in 2001 pushed its trade openness to the highest point—higher than the world average and the levels of the UK and US (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Trade openness from 1960 to 2016 for four of the world’s largest economies, with the world average also indicated. Source: World Development Indicators (2018).

China is said to have been the largest beneficiary of globalisation until the economic crisis hit in 2008. After the economic crisis, the international market became weak and the Chinese economy could no longer count on export as its most powerful economic ‘carrier’ (besides investment and consumption). Immediately following the crisis, the Chinese government injected 4 trillion renminbi (RMB) into the economy and boosted short-term investment and consumption. Its long-term plan, which was not clear until 2012, is to further stimulate trade openness and integration into the world economy. China thus seeks to leverage the global market and resources to boost its economic growth.

At the helm of rebuilding globalisation efforts?

China does not only want to continue to benefit from globalisation, but also wants to lead the rebuilding of a global system where it could assume a leading role. The current deglobalisation phenomenon does not mean that the general globalisation trend will cease, because the core driver of globalisation is technology, which is advancing faster than ever. However, it does suggest a splintering (if not collapse) of the current globalisation system created after World War II and shaped to its current state largely by developed economies.

Trumpism and Brexitism are both symbols of the deglobalisation phenomenon but are not evidence that the traditional leaders of globalisation are deglobalising their economies. Instead, such symbols show the recognition of the need for a new globalisation system by both ‘traditional’ world leaders like the US and UK as well as emerging powers who were largely excluded from the last global rulemaking process and now hold a share of the world GDP so significant that they cannot be ruled out again.

However, globalisation in China has always been selective, well-managed, and restricted mainly to economic and trade-related activities. Besides its achievement regarding global trade, China shows little achievement or/and willingness to be globalised in terms of, for example, finance, human resources, and culture. The exchange rate is under careful control. English education in China is mandatory since middle school, but the real usage of English is still quite limited. China is known to be the most difficult country for foreigners to attain residence permits, and to date it blocks direct access to the global internet. These are all signs that Beijing is not too eager to participate in all forms of globalisation.

China needs to tread carefully

And thus its attitude may jeopardise China’s idea of globalisation through the OBOR initiative. The explanation often used by Chinese government for the selectivity related to the initiative is its desire to minimise the negative effect of Western-Defined Globalisation and to respect China’s special country situation. However, China’s attitude towards the OBOR must be open-minded and holistic, both tolerable of and acceptable to a wide range of ideologies.

The Chinese government seems to realise that and is promoting the OBOR as ‘the most inclusive globalisation system’. Formally, the OBOR emphasises five key areas of cooperation, including economic, financial and social exchanges, and the private sector is encouraged and expected to be the main driver of the initiative. Unfortunately, the current situation suggests that OBOR has been largely driven by state-owned enterprises and government-level trade agreements, and is limited to global trade. The areas that are not engaged by the plan, such as culture, education, data sharing and immigration, are likely to hinder China’s efforts towards globalisation, especially in a digital world where technology is developed at such a high speed.

In conclusion, China will continue to seek leadership in restoring the globalisation system, with the OBOR initiative as its core measure. However, both traditional leaders and other emerging powers still have a say in how and whether the globalisation system is re-established. Consensus may not have been reached between countries, but the globalisation trend is likely to continue—and at a faster pace due to new technologies. If China truly wants to become a major global leader in the quest to ‘restart’ globalisation, private sector involvement in areas other than trade need to be encouraged through a more open-minded attitude.

Also see: Deglobalisation 2.0: Trump and Brexit are but symptoms by Peter. A.G. van Bergeijk and Challenges to the liberal peace by Syed Mansoob Murshed

untitled.pngAbout the author:

Chenmei Li is a Project Analyst at Institute of New Structural Economics, Peking University—one of the top 25 think tanks in China. She is working on economic transformation of developing countries (especially in Africa) and China’s engagement with LDCs. She received a Master’s degree from the ISS in 2016.



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