How can we make better sense of the world we live in? I have been trying to think through this question for a while, just thinking about how digital tools can aid in generating insights from diverse sources.
I have been interested in the geopolitics of China’s rise — it is clear that China is a rising power, and that would have implications for the world. That China has started the Belt and Road projects would also appear to be something worthy of attention — it is after all, an initiative that has been added to PRC’s constitution, and it might be worth looking at it.
I want to look at the official documents around the Belt and Road Forum, held in both 2017 and 2019, to try to understand, from the outcomes, what China is doing in the world, and what patterns might be discerned from it.
The 2017 Deliverables might be found here: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-05/15/c_136286376.htm
The 2019 Deliverables might be found here: http://www.beltandroadforum.org/english/n100/2019/0427/c36-1312.html
The Deliverables are interesting documents — they mention the various projects that countries and various international organisations have signed up on. These initiatives also mention the Chinese agency representing China in these initiatives. Given that the Belt and Road platform is a significant national project for China, the pattern of engagement — in how China engages different countries and organisations on the various initiatives is worth looking at, to discern if there is any pattern n the ordering of global relations, and if so, what might be.
I am not going to go into the detail of the various documents, simply because of time constraints. What I do want to focus on, is the networks that result from the different Belt and Road-related projects — as various countries sign on to different related initiatives.
From the Deliverables documents, I am able to visualise a network of how the different Chinese agencies and countries are related to each other. The result, is a graph — as long as a Chinese agency and a country are mentioned in the same paragraph, I consider that a link.
[2017 picture]: https://kumu.io/joelfirenze/brf#brf2017
[2019 picture]: https://kumu.io/joelfirenze/brf#brf2019
The 2017 graph is centred on the “CNgov” — a generic catchall, which I take to mean the Foreign Ministry, representing diplomatic efforts. That should not be a surprise, given how important the Belt and Road seems to be. Other important agencies that are important for this effort are the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Commerce, and the National Development and Reform Commission. What is also surprising for the 2017 edition is the Standards agency — the agency presumably responsible for establishing standards and quality within the country. At the same time, the 2017 Belt and Road Forum also featured several international and UN-affiliated bodies, such as the ITU, ICAO, IMO and WMO, as well as UNICEF, UNIDO, and others. The presence of such agencies suggests that China is not a revisionist power — in the sense of establishing new alternative global institutions. Rather, this suggests that China is in the process of developing influence to change global standards on a whole range of items — as would be understandable for a rising power such as China.
The 2019 graph differs from the 2017 graph in various aspects. The graph is larger — 100 over countries attended the 2019 Belt and Road in some capacity, compared to over 60 in 2017. The range of entities is also greater — private institutions also take part in the Belt and Road Forum, mentioned in the Deliverables. There is also a clear focus in anti-corruption, environment and climate change, and in science, technology and innovation matters. The content is also different. Other than the usual infrastructural commitments, there are also other modalities of interactions — scholarships, arts and cultural activities, are now also on the agenda. There are also several organisations founded in China that have a global agenda — the “World Tourism Cities Federation”, and “Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization” make their appearance here.
We can obtain additional insights by looking at the eigenvector centrality scores for different nodes in the two graphs:
Eigenvector centrality measures how connected nodes are, to other highly connected nodes. That the “Cngov” node is highly central is unsurprising. What is of note is the list of countries that are quite crucial. From this illustration, one can infer that countries such as Pakistan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, and Belarus might constitute an “inner-core” of countries in the Belt and Road. Geographically speaking, this is not surprising — these countries are adjacent to other significant regions — Belarus as a gateway to eastern Europe and Russia; Pakistan for southwest Asia; Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos for Southeast Asia, and so forth. These countries also have had historically close links with China (and some border it). The inclusion of African and European countries in 2019 represent a geographic expansion of the Belt and Road — that they might be new frontiers.
China’s leaders might take a two-track approach to increase its influence in global governance; the first track would be using the Belt and Road platform to engage countries on standards that could be become global standards at various international organisations. The second track would involve establishing new organisations where it sees fit.
This leads me to the future — if the Belt and Road Forum were to be held in 2021, it would be very significant, given how this is the first of the Two Centenaries — 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and whoever the leader is at that time — most likely still Xi Jinping, would have to have “something to show for it.” (I’m thinking of the Chinese phrase “有所作为”, used by previous Chinese leaders about how China should have concrete achievements before proclaiming a leadership position in the world.) Using the 2021 Belt and Road to commemorate the major achievements would definitely be one aspect of it.
Given the trajectory of developments, the 2021 Belt and Road Forum will likely see:
- More countries, with a broader scope of engagement. For instance, more countries in Africa and South America might be engaged.
- The creation of new multilateral institutions as part of the Belt and Road.
- The involvement of more private-sector institutions participating in Belt and Road projects.
- Outside the Belt and Road, we will see more international/multilateral institutions taking China’s perspectives, or have things framed in ways aligned with China’s perspective. This is just the natural byproduct of a major power getting its way through shaping the rules, and influencing the field of play/arena given that they are the biggest player across multiple domains of economic and technical activities.
I also hope that this has demonstrated the value of social network analysis on even seemingly mundane documents. These and other official documents, while not restructured data in the form of rows and columns, are often structured enough that they can be converted into more structured data. Moreover, there are tools, such as Kumu, and other tools that are available, that can help the analyst with the task of converting these official documents into more structured data for analysis.