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The New-Old Globalization

The European Union is increasingly divided over how best to manage economic relations with an increasingly outward-looking China. On the whole, European governments are probably right to be wary of Chinese investment; but that doesn't mean they should ignore China's vision of cross-border development.

PRINCETON – Once upon a time, everyone assumed that there was a single phenomenon called globalization, whereby cross-border flows of financial capital drove innovation, industrialization, development, and trade. But Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) advances an alternative vision of globalization, based on an integrated system of physical infrastructure. The material world of ships and trains will replace the immaterial world of financialization.

But while Xi conceived the BRI as a straightforward way to consign the old, unstable Western-led globalization to the dustbin of history, it is also meant to address a particular domestic challenge: namely, the concentration of economic development along China’s coast, where a wealthy, sophisticated seaboard elite has emerged. Social stability demands that the gains from China’s extraordinary growth be distributed more evenly throughout the country.

This is not just a Chinese issue, of course. Historically, globally significant cities have almost always been littoral, located either on coastlines or navigable rivers. Centuries ago, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Genoa, and Venice – even ancient Athens and Tyre – served as the world’s commercial hubs. Today, metropolises like London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, Sydney, and Rio de Janeiro perform a similar role.

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