Overview of the Belt and Road Project
Also referred to as the New Silk Road, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)is a visionary project of China and is recognized as the most ambitious infrastructure project in the world. Publicized by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the enormous collection of investment and development projects was initially proposed to connect East Asia and Europe by physical infrastructure. The original Silk Road stretched over 4000 miles to Europe and with Central Asia as the epicenter of this symbolic globalization initiative that linked the West and East markets, stimulating huge wealth and intermixing religious and cultural traditions. It significantly opened China to world trade (PWC, 2016). However, its peak during the first millennium was marked by trade stagnation associated with the rise of the Crusades and the entry of the Mongols in Central Asia as well as other factors that led to Central Asian countries becoming economically isolated from one another. Thus, the intra-regional trade only constituted a small fraction of the entire cross-border trade making the region highly reliant on Russia.
To fight these outcomes, President Xi pronounced the New Silk Road initiative, which was a two-pronged plan proposed to comprise “the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road,” which were originally named “the One Belt, One Road Initiative” before taking the name “the Belt and Road Initiative” (Lepinske, 2017). The visionary project included building a vast network of highways, railways, energy pipelines, and synchronized border crossings. A primary aim was to expand the global acceptance and use of the Chinese renminbi currency and eliminate the bottleneck in Asian connectivity (Xi, 2015). Further, the initiative was to include many special economic zones, or industrial parks intended for job creation, and promoting states to embrace Chinese technology, particularly Huawei’s 5G network. The ambitious BRI is enormous, and currently, it involves 147 countries, accounting for 40% of the world’s GDP and two-thirds of the world’s population.
The Rationale of the BRI
Profound and intricate changes are continuously emerging globally, including the underlying effects of the global financial crisis continuously arises; slagging recovery of the world economy, and uneven global development; the global trade and investment environment and multilateral trade rules and regulations are facing significant adjustments; and nations continue to experience immense challenges. At the core of BRI is the joint building of the Belt and Road, promoting the trend towards a multipolar globe, economic globalization, cultural diversity, and increased application of information technology, aims at designing and upholding a global free trade system and the open world economy. Further, it is proposed to promote the systematic and free flow of economic factors, increasingly efficient resource allocation, and solidly integrated markets (Xi, 2015). Accordingly, this is envisioned to stimulate or enable participating states to accomplish economic plan synchronization, conduct extensive and detailed regional collaboration of greater standards, and mutually build a fair, balanced, and inclusive regional commercial integration framework that profits everyone involved. The joint effort to build the Belt and Road has its interests towards a world community concept. Considering human societies’ collective principles and quest, it is a positive attempt to design novel intercontinental cooperation models and world order. It will bring healthier dynamism into world order and development.
Key Factors Motivating the BRI
At its core, BRI underlines an economically driven project that empowers China to enter the international market by exporting its surplus productive capacity. Most of the project’s participating countries also export their raw materials and energy to China, fueling China’s manufacturing sector. From an economic perspective, these strategies are significantly helping to stimulate China’s sluggish economic growth and mitigate the increasing income inequality (Xi, 2015). The economic aspect of the BRI started with designing a stage and a financial strategy to assemble developing economies towards supporting the pursuit of a closely integrated economic plan and to build the vital infrastructure necessary to enjoining these economies into the 5th industrial revolution and be part of the 20th-century economic charter (Toumert, 2021). Alkhalloufi (2019) justifies the BRI as the chief regional infrastructure development driver fighting to narrow the inequality between its economic capability and the veracities of its insufficient infrastructure. Besides, this makes the BRI more than a regional project and solidly presents it as one with a global status and one with inclusivity. For instance, Africa is seen to be the most beneficiary of China’s economic efforts through financial growth and infrastructure development. Nabar & Tovar (2017) also cites China’s government’s recent restructuring and strategies to expand the position of the Chinese currency. The economic impact is similarly present through the countries and population coverage of the BRI projects. According to a report by the PWC (2019), projects under the BRI impact more than a third of the global trade and GDP and over 60% of the global population.
The BRI is much more than a purely economically driven initiative. China’s other principal foreign policy goal is to reach strategic equivalence with the US in Asia and restructure its security environment to guarantee its unrestrained growth. A core issue is China’s trade routes being barricaded if a confrontation with the US was to occur since US allies surround China. Hence, the BRI is strategically in place to influence countries along these trade routes, specifically from East Asia, to East Africa and Central Asia, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, and ultimately to Europe. Remarkably, most of the BRI projects serve dual economic and strategic drives, for instance, the ports in Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Gwadar (Pakistan), and Djibouti, whose China’s influence has spurred the US to reach out to these nations equally.
The infrastructure investments within the BRI projects are framed in such a way that their influence over the host country is easier to wedge with, disturbing the global economic order even when the host state’s governments experience radical changes. This can be illustrated by the strategically funded infrastructure and support for the war effort of the former Rajapakse government, only for the administration to lose power to its opponent who had made pre-election promises to strengthen shift relations with India and the West (Xi, 2015). However, with time, the new regime realized the long-term nature of China’s presence, leading to a return to China that was marked by further investments from China.
Another outcome or objective of the BRI is a focus on gaining a pivotal leadership role at the global scale and establishing links with neighboring countries in its present status. China pursues to augment its power in a geopolitical market where competition for global influence motivates developing economies (PWC, 2016). The strategy is hedged on an aid and loan approach that intends to support China’s growing vision for financial power (including increased acceptance and usage of its currency) and trade power.
Notably, the BRI is strategized to enhance China’s political gain among many countries globally. Through the aid and loan strategy, China has engaged countries that the West, through its various agencies, has ignored based on the need for better governance and the robust rule of law associated with corruption. Some recipients of the BRI funding include Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Sri Lanka and have in the past been ignored by the West, yet due to their strategic positioning, they still matter and are being used by China to gain political influence in Central and East Asia, not to mention in Africa and Latin America. Furthermore, China’s capacity to establish certain key international regulatory and technical standards is ripe to give Chinese companies a competitive advantage and to convert many state-owned enterprises (SOE) to their advantage.
Image and Culture
Cultural values also help drive the BRI since prestige has long been a core value in hierarchical Chinese society and is a major policy-making drive. Cultural values are enshrined in the “mianzi,” or face, prioritizing recognizing and appreciating others. Likewise, Confucian ideas underline benevolent leadership are evident in China’s “peaceful rise” narrative and the pronouncements by President Xi of new, collaborative techniques of international relations, all of which sets the pace for the BRI (Sterling, 2018). China is in an attempt to demonstrate how its progression experience of centralized power differs from the West’s pre-modern approach of small, competing states.
The People’s Republic of China and its policymakers perceive this as a significant civilization that underwent colonial-era humiliation and required global recognition. Advocates of the BRI argue that it is a symbolic historical course correction. In 1600, just before China was colonized, the country was the largest economy in the world, accounting for 29% of the global GDP, and combined with India, both economies accounted for over half the global economy (Sterling, 2018).
Additionally, the BRI leads to the interchange of numerous cultural aspects, particularly ideologies, languages, rich religious history, and harmonious cultural exchanges. Fundamentally, the BRI is hailed as a significant landmark that rhetorically emphasizes the mutual historical and cultural heritage of the past and contemporary China (Jones, 2019). Remarkably, China is directly capitalizing on this heritage through collaboration, trust, and respect in Asia with the BRI, intending to execute projects to increase global competitiveness, promote infrastructural growth, and redirect member parties to the BRI policy, and through the progression of China’s soft power (Sterling, 2018). Furthermore, the BRI has stimulated a variety of attraction, enthrallment, trepidation, and wonderment emotions on the BRI’s strategic vision and its “Charming” capabilities through China’s use of soft power tools.
In reality, the BRI’s discourse, over the years, has understandably changed and has now largely focused on the economic aspect but also emphasized the soft power strategy, particularly culture that has now presented as a channel, a gateway for China with the capacity to influence. Hence, China’s strong focus on the BRI truly has the strength and potential to peacefully stimulate and change Asia through its soft power strategy, ultimately boosting the country’s image regionally and globally (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2020).
The Threat from the BRI
Global disapproval of the BRI extensively considers the project as a volatile geopolitical strategy that contravenes the “rules-based liberal international order (LIO)” by presenting the practice of coercion and forced cooperation toward weak states. Generally, the US queries the intentions and approaches trailed by implementing the BRI and has designated it as a vulturine and an avenue for creating an impact through debt-trap and exploitation diplomacy (Lindley, 2022). Concerning the West and its allies, the BRI is largely described appropriately as a strategy for fast-tracking the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) revisionist ideology. The outcome is the intensified widespread acuity that China is in the race to shed its insular presentation by executing its modern-day Marshall Plan version, though not with untainted purposes. The BRI is also considered a strategy for weaponizing the global supply chain and attaining technology dominance. It will put China at the epicenter of the Eurasian trade markets, whose outcome is unequal market leverages regionally and appealing to other regional states to give into China’s interests. Through the strategy, China can gain significant capacity to influence the political trajectories of regional players in an expanding CCP sphere of influence that is tethered to the values of China, which are established on short-run economic gains while undervaluing human rights and democracy.
Various unilateral agreements with develop[ping countries with China as the key stakeholder are seen as directly demeaning EU unity and present noteworthy competition to Western businesses with investment, trade, and market. Currently, SOEs claim ownership of many Western ports or management points, threatening entrance to essential logistics points and presenting parallel constraints to those along the Indian Ocean (Lindley, 2022). The aggressiveness is also strengthened by the seeming and increasing collaborative military rapport between China and Russia. Although the improving Russia-China military relationship is not a direct threat to the West, particularly the US, it provides an enabling environment for China to support the BRI effectively.
While the BRI has been viewed from a negative dimension by the West, most benefitting countries consider the projects to be highly appealing since they provide opportunities for worldwide connectivity, and the attraction of Chinese venture presents at face value as one that addresses most of the pertinent challenges of the developing world. Besides, they have few options in seeking these prospects and are disposed to paying the social and political cost as the only required entry fee. This is reinforced by the fact that most of these countries might not have alternatives due to their corruption and weak governance structures, which limits their credibility on the international “Western” stage. Accordingly, there is no single multinational agreement or multilateral organization that will be a direct threat to the BRI. Nevertheless, the unified influence and impact of Western-led multinational treaties whose attention is on global scale infrastructure building and with industrial and supply chain aptitude functions as a strong alternative mechanism.
Alkhalloufi, T. (2019). BRI Creates a New Asian Paradigm for Global Economic Integration and Inclusiveness. Global Times.
Center for Strategic and International Studies. (2020, August 26). How will the Belt and Road Initiative advance China’s interests? China Power Project. https://chinapower.csis.org/china-belt-and-road-initiative/
Jones, W. (2019, October 3). The BRI promotes the dialogue of cultures. CGTN. https://news.cgtn.com/news/2019-10-03/The-BRI-promotes-the-dialogue-of-cultures-Kuj6wrL8Ri/index.html
Lepinske, H. (2017, May 1). The Belt and Road Initiative and Its Global Significance. The Belt and road initiative and its Global Significance. http://chicago.china-consulate.gov.cn/eng/lgxx/zlsjh/201705/t20170501_5496263.htm
Lindley, D. (2022, August 1). Assessing China’s motives: How the belt and road initiative threatens US interests. Air University (AU). https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/JIPA/Display/Article/3111114/assessing-chinas-motives-how-the-belt-and-road-initiative-threatens-us-interests/
Nabar, M. & Tovar, E. C. (2017). Renminbi Internationalization. In R. W. Lam, M. Rodlauer, & A. Schipke (Eds.), Modernizing China—Investing in Soft Infrastructure (pp. 249-277). Washington DC: International Monetary Fund.
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Toumert, M. A. (2021). The impact of the Belt and Road initiative in boosting local business through Asia and Africa satisfaction: A study of Kenya-China business projects. Open Journal of Business and Management, 09(04), 1714–1742. https://doi.org/10.4236/ojbm.2021.94094
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