China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Takeaways from CSIS Discussion

On August 2nd, in a Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) discussion live streamed on YouTube, Nadège Rolland of the National Bureau of Asian Research and Matthew P. Goodman with CSIS offered insight into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Below are some of the most important takeaways from the informative discussion.

What is BRI?

BRI is a far-reaching, ambitious plan for China to develop extensive hard infrastructure and connectivity across Eurasia, and eventually across most of the world. As described by the panelists, BRI is a “top-level” design project from China, with intellectual, political, diplomatic, and financial forces in play. Already, elements of BRI can be seen in essentially every part of the world, outside of the USA. Due to the extensive reach of the plan, BRI is seen as a broad, overarching direction for China in the decades to come, rather than having any kind of limited scope. It is “both vision and the instrument to serve that vision.”

BRI largely represents a return to a traditional Chinese approach of building diplomatic relationships with its neighbors, with a long-term vision of extending far beyond those neighbors. For China, it offers a way to build a more wealthy economy without having to dismantle state-owned enterprises and undertake any drastic economic reform. In fact, the active contribution of the state-owned enterprises towards BRI goals allows China to make such entities stronger.

How Is BRI Different From Past Efforts?

Of course, BRI is not a wholly unique initiative. The US and the UN have engaged in similar efforts, as has China itself before BRI. As discussed by the panelists, the idea of widespread inter-connectivity across Eurasia traces back to the UN in the 1960’s. Although the Cold War made it an impossible endeavor at the time, the idea re-emerged in the 1990’s, and the US and EU became more involved in projects aimed at seamless infrastructure across the continent. According to the panelists, those projects had both trade and societal goals  in mind. Eurasia could be made “whole and free,” and civil society would be more likely to demand more rights.

China’s vision with BRI is different from the above, in the eyes of the panelists. The emphasis is on connections TO China; the nation’s own interests are first and foremost, by far. The “whole and free” vision for Eurasia is not an interest of China’s.

BRI is also more coherent than any past efforts. As mentioned above, intellectual, political, financial, and other forces are all making their own contributions towards the overarching effort, with think tanks and other groups starting to be more prevalent in refining the initiative.

What Are The Drivers of BRI?

Generally speaking, China’s main focus is on geopolitical benefits and becoming the uncontested leading power in the region. In the words of the panelists, “recreating sinocentric order” (i.e. an ideology that China is the cultural center of the world) is a large driving force behind BRI.

The panelists split the drivers of BRI into two main categories: economic and strategic. 

On the economic side, BRI is viewed as a stimulus package of sorts. It is (1) helping with the offloading of overcapacity in some parts of the Chinese economy, (2) furthering the “Going Global” strategies of Chinese state-owned enterprises, and (3) expediting the internationalization of Chinese currency.

The strategic drivers were described as (1) “security through development” (particularly in Western China), (2) securing energy, (3) “neighborhood diplomacy,” and (4) countering the United States’ strategic pivot to Asia.

On a related note, China is not capable, at the moment, of changing things (via military presence) on the ground in most other countries. BRI, however, has offered China the chance to exert “influence through investments.” Some of China’s foreign BRI investment partners have shown a willingness to temper their criticism of certain Chinese policies (e.g. human rights issues, the South China Sea debate, etc.)

China’s Careful Presentation of BRI

Interestingly, Chinese governmental guidelines instruct the media not to use the term “strategy” when discussing BRI. According to the panelists, the prevailing view in the Chinese government is that the term “strategy” gives off a “bad image” and steers the focus away from the economic aspects of BRI. As mentioned in the discussion, “We’re coming to invest” sounds much better than “We’re coming for political purposes.”

Although China wants the focus on infrastructure building and other economic aspects, the official narrative shouldn’t distract interested parties from the other elements of BRI: evolving trade policy, monetary integration, people-to-people exchanges, regional integration, and so on.

What Makes BRI Work?

Two general themes are apparent in the actual mechanics of BRI: dilution of financial risk and delegation of security.

Financially, China obviously cannot handle an initiative of this scale by itself. It is actively trying to bring in more stakeholders to fulfill the strategy of co-financing many elements of BRI. In a way, China is looking to “bend” the non-interference policy that has shaped many of its international relations. For example, great efforts have been made by China (by way of the “16+1” initiative) to improve collaboration with Central and Eastern European countries. This is particularly true with regard to Hungary, Serbia, the Czech Republic, and other countries that are more far-right leaning and possibly struggling with EU norms.

This bending of the non-interference policy involves cooperating with local armies, security forces, police, and so on in countries that fall under the umbrella of BRI. Pakistan has been an example of this delegation of security surrounding BRI projects.

China is also making attempts to find synergy with other countries’ local initiatives that are similar to BRI. Examples of this approach are being seen in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and with the Juncker Plan in the EU.

Another approach China has been taking with BRI is to transfer the industrial capacities to smaller countries, while keeping the high-tech capacities closer to home.

Challenges to BRI

The challenges to BRI are very straightforward. The main challenges cited by the panelists were: (1) Eurasia’s diversity, (2) China’s lack of experience in endeavors of this type and scale, (3) the economic viability of some of the specific projects, (4) misgivings of other countries, and (5) local security risks.

In addition to the other countries, some Chinese scholars were described as having (private) misgivings regarding BRI. A minority opinion in China seems to be that BRI is indicative of imperial overstretch and neocolonialism.

How Are Other Nations Responding?

Of course, the Chinese view the USA, BRI’s main “challenger,” as trying to block the initiative at every opportunity possible. While this view is largely justified, the panelists also described an underlying, excessive paranoia regarding BRI in China, part of a “strange mix” of such a powerful country on one hand, and a widespread feeling of vulnerability on the other. Nevertheless, it seems that China is doing what it can to avoid any kind of head-on conflict that could damage relations with the USA or further contribute to the North-South EU fracture.

In the opinion of the panelists, the USA and its allies should be pooling their resources in order to make themselves available to BRI countries as a “counterweight” to China’s influence. Rather than trying to “stop” the initiative, a more effective approach will be to provide alternatives for investors. However, the USA’s relative lack of available money to invest in such counterweights, as well as some conflicting priorities, are presenting challenges to this approach.

China’s “annoyance” with India was cited several times throughout the discussion. This attitude towards India is a result of India’s public refusal to endorse BRI. Furthermore, India is working with Japan on a separate infrastructure building initiative. India’s concerns center around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, various ports around the Indian Ocean, and other maritime security issues. Beyond India and Japan, the panelists believed that other countries should be reflecting on their own objectives and comparing them with the objectives of China, perhaps exercising more caution than they currently are when deciding to partner with China.

Finally, there has been some cooperation from Russia, although China is being careful not to step into Russia’s “security sphere of influence.”

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