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The Belt and Road Initiative as Global Public Good: Implications for International Law

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Among various perspectives to view the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), the Global Public Good (GPG) theory provides a distinct angle to assess the coming opportunities and challenges, with the resolution of “collective action” dilemma as its primary concern. To tackle the collective action problem and ensure the provision of necessary GPGs, international law should be the suitable facilitator to coordinate and compromise divergent interests along the Belt and Road. However, the GPG narrative of the BRI entails a more holistic and grandeur vision for a world order which surpassed the parochial and constrained foundation in which international law was originated. Based on the Chinese conception of world order which is ingrained in the old philosophical concept “Tian-xia” (All-Under-Heaven), the chapter critically examines the role of international law in the course of international cooperation and proposes a new perspective to revive the public facet of international law to genuinely meet the GPGs expectation of the BRI. In the meantime, to avoid being purely speculative, the chapter heightens the practical opportunities and challenges the GPG narrative of the BRI brings to an emerging Chinese perspective of international law.

The chapter benefited greatly from three referees’ detailed comments and feedback. The views expressed herein are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations with which the author is or was affiliated. All errors remain the author’s.

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  1. 1.

    The two initiatives are called the Silk Road Economic Belt and the twenty-first-Century Maritime Silk Road and were respectively proposed in September and October 2013 when President Xi was visiting Central Asia and Southeast Asia.

  2. 2.

    Previously it was called the One Belt and One Road Initiative (“OBOR”) but later the word “one” was deleted for the semantic confusion it may cause. Another major change is in the official usage, the Belt and Road should be called an “initiative” rather than “strategy”. The reason is that the word “strategy” is too aggressive and did not match the ethos of the BRI as a friendly and mutual benefit project.

  3. 3.

    Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on August 16, 2017. Accessed on 18 October 2017.

  4. 4.

    This definition has been widely accepted among mainstream microeconomics economic textbooks. See Gravelle and Rees (1992) and Varian (1978).

  5. 5.

    See Samuelson (1954), pp. 387–389.

  6. 6.

    See Coussy (2005), pp. 177–178.

  7. 7.

    See Oslon (1965), pp. 9–10.

  8. 8.

    See Olson (1971) and Kindleberger (1986).

  9. 9.

    The three volumes are: Kaul et al. (1999, 2003) and Kaul and Conceição (2006). See also International Task Force on Global Public Goods (2006) Meeting Global Challenges: International Corporation in the National Interest. Some governments and international organizations also initiated studies on GPGs. See Kaul (2013). See also, Gavas (2013).

  10. 10.

    See Kaul (2011), p. 37.

  11. 11.

    See Petersmann (2012), p. 710.

  12. 12.

    See Nordhaus (2005), p. 8.

  13. 13.

    See Kaul (2012).

  14. 14.

    See Krisch (2014), pp. 39–40.

  15. 15.

    See Bodansky (2012), p. 657.

  16. 16.

    See Barrett (2007).

  17. 17.

    This typology has been widely accepted by scholars and policy makers alike. See, Too Global to Fail: The World Bank at the Intersection of National and Global Public Policy in 2025, pp. 13–51. Accessed 19 October 2017.

  18. 18.

    For the single best effort good, it relies on the one single state which has the resources or ability to provide. For example, in the case of the deflection of an asteroid which was about to hit the earth, only limited states have the technology to accomplish that goal. For weakest link goods, such as eradication of communicable diseases, nuclear non-proliferation or anti-terrorism, the success relies on the weakest link countries to provide the above GPGs. If the weakest link failed to provide, the whole success would be in peril. In the case of aggregate efforts goods, their provisions rely on aggregate efforts of all the parties concerned. An obvious example is the common effort to tackle climate change.

  19. 19.

    See Shaffer (2012).

  20. 20.

    See Long and Woolley (2009).

  21. 21.

    Action Plan on the Belt and Road Initiative, issued by the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, with State Council authorization, on March 28, 2015.

  22. 22.


  23. 23.

    See Article 1of The Articles of Agreement of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank: The purpose of the Bank shall be to: (1) foster sustainable economic development, create wealth and improve infrastructure connectivity in Asia by investing in infrastructure and other productive sectors; and (2) promote regional cooperation and partnership in addressing development challenges by working in close collaboration with other multilateral and bilateral development institutions.

  24. 24.

    See Mendoza (2003).

  25. 25.

    The Belt and Road Ecological and Environmental Cooperation Plan, issued by the Ministry of Environment Protection, on May 14, 2017. Accessed 19 October 2017.

  26. 26.

    See Koskenniemi (2011), p. 158.

  27. 27.

    Statement by President Trump on the Paris Climate Accord. Accessed 18 October 2017.

  28. 28.

    See Tavlas (1997).

  29. 29.

    See Neely (2015).

  30. 30.

    See Eichengreen (1989).

  31. 31.

    See Kennedy (2016).

  32. 32.

    See Schmitt (1996). To be specific, the distinction (friend-enemy) is Schmitt’s overarching understanding of the political realm: it is precisely the distinction “to which political actions and motives can be reduced”.

  33. 33.

    See Greene (1990) and Kennedy (2016), pp. 199–217.

  34. 34.

    See Said (1978).

  35. 35.

    See Anghie (2007). Anghie made detailed study on the continuing influence of imperialism from the nineteenth century to contemporary war on terror and expressed his suspicion on the role of international law in different stages of history in maintaining the rule of different imperialistic powers.

  36. 36.

    See Orford (2003). Take humanitarian intervention as example, Orford provided insightful ideas on the role of international institutions, especially the financial institutions, in instigating the local conflicts and the failure of their responses to provide necessary help to the local people after the crisis. The reason, is due to the civilizing mission attached to these institutions at the beginning of their establishments by the dominating powers.

  37. 37.

    See Yi (2016), p. 180.

  38. 38.

    “Hide one’s capacities and blind one’s time” was first proposed by Den Xiaoping and has been China’s basic foreign policy maxim since the Reform and Opening up. The succeeding leadership did not deviate from this principle for almost 30 years and entering into the reign of President Xi, it begins to experience some changes.

  39. 39.

    See Shichor (2006), pp. 4–6.

  40. 40.

    See Joseph Nay: Xi Jinping’s Marco Polo Strategy, in Project Syndicate, June 12, 2017. Accessed 19 October 2017.

  41. 41.

    As of October 13, total approved membership of AIIB is 80. Members and Prospective Members of the Bank. Accessed19 October 2017.

  42. 42.

    See Zhao (2009). Prof. Zhao Tingyang is a leading philosopher in China and he authored several books on applying the Chinese philosophy to interpret and reconstruct the world order. His main argument is the Tian-xia (All-under-heaven) may provide another world order that worth envisioning given the contemporary failure of the world based on western thoughts. See Zhao (2016).

  43. 43.

    Ibid. Zhao (2016), p. 11.

  44. 44.

    It is no wonder the “Westphalia system” is always considered as the starting point of the western conception of world order. And this phenomenon was called the “Westphalian myth”.

  45. 45.

    See Giddens (1985).

  46. 46.

    See Zhao (2006).

  47. 47.

    See supra note 42, Zhao (2016), p. 12.

  48. 48.

    One can take a glimpse of the essence of Chinese philosophy on binding the ethics of family and the ruling of the world together in the opening clause of Daxue(大学), an essential reading for every Chinese elite: “From ancient times, those who want to promote great virtue to the world, first need to govern their states; in order to govern their states, they need to first manage their family; in order to manage their family, they need to first improve themselves; in order to improve oneself, they need to regulate their mind; in order to regulate their mind, one needs to maintain sincere intention; in order to maintain sincere intention, one needs to exhaust one’s knowledge; in order to exhaust one’s knowledge, one needs to study the essence of the physical world. Study the physical world, learn everything you can learn, be sincere with your intentions and regulate your mind; with your mind at the right place, you’ll be able to improve yourself. After you improve yourself, you can manage your family, after your family is managed, you can govern your states and bring justice and virtue to the World.”

  49. 49.

    The time after the Zhou was decried by Confucius as “rites collapsed and music disappeared”. The rites and music are all essential ingredients for a harmonious society based on Tian-xia.

  50. 50.

    See Sato (2014). The book surveyed the Chinese intellectuals’ struggles when encountering the western civilization and their works to modify their world-views to counteract the shocks. International law was one of the important themes at that time.

  51. 51.

    See Eriksen and Sending (2013), p. 177.

  52. 52.

    Shang Shu (《尚书》) is one of the oldest Chinese books, dating from approximately 3000 years ago, recording the words and anecdotes of the greatest kings of yesteryear. Quoted from Zhao (2009).

  53. 53.

    See Zhang (2017).

  54. 54.

    See Kennedy (1987) and Koskenniemi (2005).

  55. 55.

    See Liu (2014).

  56. 56.

    The Five principles of co-existence was incorporated in the preamble of the agreement of Trade and Intercourse between India and the Tibet region of China. It was the first time that the Five Principles appeared in a document of international relations on April 29, 1954.

  57. 57.

    See the Action Plan for the Belt and Road Initiative.

  58. 58.

    See Chen (1984 ) and Wang (1990).

  59. 59.

    See Xi Jingping (2017).


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He, C. (2018). The Belt and Road Initiative as Global Public Good: Implications for International Law. In: Shan, W., Nuotio, K., Zhang, K. (eds) Normative Readings of the Belt and Road Initiative. Springer, Cham.

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