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Border cities encouraged to boost B&R construction, neighborhood diplomacy

CHEN WEI | 2018-03-29 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pictured above are camel statues on the Kazakhstan side at the China-Kazakhstan Khorgos International Border Cooperation Center, which was the first cross-border economic cooperation zone China established.


Since the “Belt and Road” (“B&R”) initiative was proposed in 2013, China’s diplomacy with neighboring countries—a key component of the initiative—has entered a new stage, especially in terms of city-to-city diplomacy.


Significance of border cities
In October 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward a neighborhood policy featuring amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in his address to the Central Neighborhood Diplomacy Work Conference. He called for the accelerated opening of border areas and deepening mutually beneficial cooperation between border regions and neighboring countries.

In the spring of 2015, the Ministry of Commerce, the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs jointly released the Vision and Actions on Jointly Building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, in which major cities in countries along the Belt and Road are encouraged to become sister cities.

Territorial governments and cities have thus enjoyed an increasingly prominent status in B&R construction and neighborhood diplomacy.

Regarding land borders, China has nine border provinces and autonomous regions—Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and Guangxi—which border 14 neighboring countries.

Under the jurisdiction of the nine provinces and regions, there are 140 border counties, including cities, districts and banners (an administrative division of Inner Mongolia), alongside 58 frontier regiments subordinate to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.

Long-term historical connections and frequent trade and personnel exchanges have made the interests of the border provinces and regions as well as cities within the jurisdiction and those of neighboring countries interweaved, giving them an incomparable advantage in China’s diplomacy toward its neighbors.

Opening up the frontier and sub-regional cooperation are vital components of the nation’s neighborhood diplomacy and form an important basis to implement the 13th Five-Year Plan for Developing Border Regions and Improving Border Residents’ Income that was issued by the State Council in 2017.

Cities in these border areas differ greatly from each other, whether in terms of natural environment, economic and social development, or adjacency with other countries. For example, Erenhot in Inner Mongolia is a transportation hub linking China and Mongolia, and Khorgos in Xinjiang is China’s gateway to Central Asia in the energy field.

To these cities, internal and external affairs are often closely related, so examining the role of cities in neighborhood diplomacy within the framework of the Belt and Road has far reaching implications.


Role varies
Due to disparities in geographical location, resource endowment and regional influence, cities play different roles in China’s diplomacy with neighboring countries. They can fall into three categories.

The first category includes central cities that take the lead. Cities of this kind are generally large with economic strength and radiating capacity. In most cases they are provincial capitals where government agencies are concentrated or economic powerhouses where corporate headquarters and financial institutions are clustered.

These cities usually direct regional governance and drive the development of surrounding areas, acting as a pole propping up regional growth. This is why some scholars have suggested building city clusters to achieve group growth by leveraging the driving power of central cities.

However, cities in border regions of China are normally low in administrative level and small in size, leading to loose city networks, which has to some extent hampered interconnectivity, a goal of the “B&R” initiative.

The 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) calls for speeding up the construction and development of city clusters. “We will plan and guide the development of city clusters in Beibu Bay, central Shanxi, the Hohhot-Baotou-Ordos-Yulin region, central Guizhou, central Yunnan, the Lanzhou-Xining region, the area around the Ningxia section of the Yellow River, and the northern foothills of the Tianshan Mountains, creating more growth poles to support regional development. We will promote the development of the urban agglomerations centered on Lhasa and Kashi,” according to the plan.

In the future, the government may devote efforts to fostering cities with strategic importance in the “B&R” initiative and building city clusters that rely on central cities in the region.
Port cities are the second type. They act as hubs in various sectors. Harbors, stations and airports are gateways for exchanges of personnel, capital, material and information in border areas, playing a pivotal role in connecting the domestic and international markets.

With the opening up of the frontier, many ports have grown into cities of different sizes, such as Heihe, Kiamusze and Manzhouli in Heilongjiang, Erenhot in Inner Mongolia, and Khorgos and Kashi in Xinjiang. As the frontline of the border, they exercise tariff autonomy, the right to inspect inbound and outbound means of transport, and entry-exit inspection and check of goods and personnel, making a big difference on complementing advantageous resource factors of bordering countries, while promoting joint economic development and regional cooperation.

The National New Urbanization Planning (2014-20) underlines the significance of cultivating and expanding port cities and towns on the land border, improving their functions in border trade, financial services and transportation link, and building international trade logistics nodes and processing bases. It also identifies 38 port cities and towns on the land border for key construction, which face Northeast, Central, West, Southeast and South Asia.

In addition to central and port cities, nations also interact along axes because of the natural environment, location and communication and transportation conditions, including such infrastructure axes as railways, highways, airlines, and oil pipelines.

Cities emerged along the axes are like fulcrums for trans-regional exchanges, generating positive effects on regional cooperation and integration that cover international trade, tourism, international logistics, environmental protection and people-to-people exchanges.

For instance, the cooperation between Kashi and Peshawar and Gwadar along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and between Zabaykalsk, Manzhouli, Tsitsihar and Harbin in the China-Mongolia-Russia sub-region bear substantively on the axis development belt.


Institutional design
When it comes to institutional design, such zones with special economic functions as pilot zones, border economic cooperation zones, and cross-border economic cooperation zones are crucial arrangements.

Currently there are seven major pilot zones, including Dongxing and Pingxiang in Guangxi, Mengla and Ruilin in Yunnan, Erenhot and Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia, and Suifenhe in Heilongjiang.

There are 17 national border economic cooperation zones. According to data from the Ministry of Commerce, the gross industrial output, tax revenues, and amounts of exports and imports of the 17 border economic cooperation zones reached approximately 93 billion yuan, 4.4 billion yuan and 70 billion yuan in 2016, respectively, with 193,600 jobs created.

The potential of cross-border economic cooperation zones in exploring new models of international economic and trade cooperation needs to be further tapped. The China-Kazakhstan Khorgos International Border Cooperation Center was the first cross-border economic cooperation zone China established.

In January 2016, the State Council promulgated the Opinion on Policies and Measures for Supporting the Development and Development of Key Border Areas. It was noted that key border areas like pilot zones, national-level border ports, border cities, border economic cooperation zones and cross-border economic cooperation zones are major platforms for China to deepen cooperation with neighboring countries and regional collaboration, big supports for economic and social development of border regions, and bulwarks to ensure border and homeland security. They are becoming bellwethers for carrying out the “B&R” initiative, occupying a vital position in national reform and development.

The opinion provides policy guidance for facilitating factor flow, transforming trade models, advancing advantageous industries with local features, encouraging tourism in border regions, quickening infrastructure construction, and supporting financial innovation and opening up.

In May 2017, the aforementioned 13th Five-Year Plan for Developing Border Regions and Improving Border Residents’ Income was issued. It highlights the importance of integrating border areas deeply into B&R construction and utilizing cooperation platforms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, Langcang-Mekong Cooperation, Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation, Greater Tumen Initiative, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor and China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor to boost economic and trade, cultural, and scientific and technological exchanges and cooperation between border areas and neighboring countries and regions.

All in all, strengthening cooperation among central, port and axis border cities is an essential part of China’s neighborhood diplomacy in the context of the “B&R” initiative, which features policy communication, infrastructure connectivity, trade links, capital flow and understanding among peoples. Connected in geography and infrastructure, these cities are where people-to-people exchanges take place frequently. Establishing interaction mechanisms and enhancing mutual understanding by means of city-to-city diplomacy is a critical path for the country to seek common interests with neighboring countries, figure out new models of global economic governance and build a community of shared future for mankind.


Chen Wei is from the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)