The Belt and Road Initiative or BRI is a Chinese-led global connectivity effort consisting of bilateral and multilateral infrastructure and energy projects totaling around $400 billion in cost as of mid-2018, according to the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right U.S. think tank.
As originally conceived, the BRI consists of:
- a land route known as the Silk Road Economic Belt, stretching from western China across the Eurasian landmass through Central Asia, Iran, and into Western Europe;
- and a sea route known as the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, beginning in eastern China, home to the world’s largest container ports, through the Strait of Malacca, and across the Indian Ocean region into Europe via Sri Lanka, the Bab el-Mandeb, and the Suez Canal.
There are four corridors formally part of the Belt and Road:
- the Eurasian Land Bridge economic corridor, which combines new and existing railway networks to connect coastal China with western Europe via Central Asia and Russia.
- the China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor, which consists of multiple roads from northeastern China crossing through Mongolia to connect to Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway.
- the China-Central Asia-West Asia economic corridor stretching from China’s western province of Xinjiang through Central Asia into Iran and Turkey.
- and the China-Indochina Peninsula economic corridor connecting the southeastern Chinese city of Kunming along multiple routes to Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
And there are two corridors described by Beijing as “closely related” to the Belt and Road:
- The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which stretches from the western Chinese city of Kashgar, down through Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, to three ports on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast. CPEC is among the more advanced Belt and Road-linked projects, with around $19 billion in energy and infrastructure projects having been initiated or completed as of early 2019.
- The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM), stretching from the southeastern Chinese city of Kunming through Burma and Bangladesh to the Indian city of Kolkata.
Announced in 2013, BRI is described in the official “action plan” developed by China as “an open, inclusive and balanced regional economic cooperation architecture that benefits all.” But it has been since criticized as being bloated, incoherent, and a form of neo-colonialism—with Chinese characteristics.
BRI consists of ground infrastructure projects such as highways, railroad networks, and dry ports; maritime ports; electric power projects and energy pipelines; and special economic zones aimed at boosting economic activity.
The portfolio of BRI projects is impressive but has ballooned into an amorphous set lacking coherence. A total of 125 countries have signed on to BRI since its start, according to Beijing. Yet Beijing has not released an updated map, indicating how these new entrants would impact the planned routes.
This ambiguity about what exactly is the Belt and Road, coupled with its grand size, has yielded hard reactions from critics of China, with its main detractors calling it a form of “debt-trap diplomacy,” alleging that Beijing is saddling developing countries like Sri Lanka with an unsustainable debt burden with the aim of gaining strategic concessions in exchange for loan forgiveness.
The Chinese-built Sri Lankan port of Hambantota is the poster child for Beijing’s alleged debt-trap diplomacy. But some scholars, including China-Africa relations expert Deborah Brautigam, disagree with that contention, arguing that “fears that the Chinese government is deliberately preying on countries in need are unfounded.”
Some observers have also identified the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a bilateral project forged with Beijing’s staunch ally Islamabad, as another example of debt-trap diplomacy. Pakistan is in the midst of a balance of payments crisis and is on the verge of entering another International Monetary Fund bailout.
But it is poor planning by Islamabad, rather than ulterior motives by Beijing, that has contributed to Pakistan’s ongoing economic crisis. When analyzing the successes and failures of BRI projects, it’s important to give recipients of Chinese aid and investment agency and hold them accountable too.
In the United States and other allied countries, there is a growing belief that the Belt and Road is ultimately a strategic project aimed at establishing an alternative world order with China at its center, offering a competing set of financial and legal institutions, norms, and locus of power to the U.S.-led system. While China does have aspirations of parity with the United States, claims that BRI is a cohesive strategic project exaggerate China’s ability to conduct long-term planning and ignore the short-term interests of a diverse set of players that drive the Belt and Road’s expansion.
After three decades of uninterrupted rapid economic growth, China’s economy began to slow down in 2013. BRI served as a safety net for state-owned enterprises. Easy lending from Chinese state banks allowed these companies to export their excess capacity and material to developing countries in desperate need of new infrastructure. BRI enabled many of these white elephants to stay afloat or restructure, keep their armies of engineers employed, and make use of their large stocks of cement, steel, and other materials. Given that BRI is seen as the pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping, there was both pressure on Chinese companies and officials to be seen as supportive of it as well as incentive for them to rebrand preexisting projects as part of BRI. Like a federal stimulus program in the United States, BRI has attracted a host of rent-seekers. In short, the drivers of BRI projects and spending are many.
While claims that BRI ultimately serves China’s long-term military and strategic interests are exaggerated, these are indeed factors that are driving or will drive Chinese decision-making with respect to the Belt and Road.
The Belt and Road is primarily an economic initiative. But it passes through volatile and often violent regions and so there are security challenges, such as insurgent and terrorist groups. Programs and policies to guard Belt and Road infrastructure, personnel, and supply routes can be seen as efforts to militarize Belt and Road projects. Security programs along the Belt and Road could indeed evolve from focused, defensive initiatives into proactive strategic ventures. But in many cases, the Chinese simply want to eliminate the risk of their nationals employed in dangerous locations from being kidnapped or killed.
Furthermore, there are some Belt and Road locations that China clearly sees in both economic and strategic terms. These include the Djiboutian port of Doraleh, where China has established a military base near a Chinese-operated commercial port. But China is far from the lone country involved in the great game in the Horn of Africa. In fact, the United Arab Emirates has been far more assertive in establishing military bases alongside commercial ports it operates in East Africa.
Finally, the distinction between what is economic and strategic—especially in our era—is often blurry irrespective of the countries involved, but especially in the case of China. Given China’s rise and growing confidence, its rising geoeconomic power is bound to have strategic externalities.