All Roads Lead to China: The Belt and Road Initiative, Explained

June 26, 2019
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by Catherine Trautwein Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the SPIEF 2019 Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed a crowd gathered for the second summit of his signature infrastructure policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The remarks — peppered with promises that the BRI would be cleaner, greener and more transparent — felt markedly less exultant than his first forum in 2017. Six years after the announcement of the BRI, a loose program of loans aimed primarily at funding foreign infrastructure projects, Xi knew China had some explaining to do.

“Xi Jinping’s speech was definitely less triumphant than the speech he gave two years ago,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He was certainly acknowledging there have been some problems.”

For years, China has pledged billions to finance infrastructure such as ports, pipelines and railways in dozens of countries across Central Asia and beyond. The program’s stated goal is to share China’s staggering growth with its neighbors, but some suspect much less benevolent motives.

Here’s what you need to know about the BRI.

What is the Belt and Road Initiative?

When President Xi first announced the framework for what would become the BRI in 2013, his plan was to set up land and sea routes connecting countries across Eurasia — a modern update to the ancient Silk Road. Today, the policy has come to encompass most of China’s overseas investments, from ports and gas pipelines to indoor ski slopes in Australia.

Though the initiative was formalized in 2013, it was essentially giving a name to strategies that had been at play for years.

As most of the rest of the world faced financial crisis in 2008, China weathered the worldwide recession with the help of a massive stimulus package. That fortune, however, led to domestic overcapacity, and China found itself dealing with issues like millions and millions of tons of extra steel. So Chinese companies began to seek new overseas markets.

Though the BRI has been pitched as an antidote to slowing economic growth at home, it is also grounded in a desire to course correct from centuries of Chinese prosperity interrupted by wars, famines and rebellions and to further the country’s stunning economic resurgence that began in the 1970s.

With the BRI, Xi is signaling China’s readiness to reprise a more proactive geopolitical role, according to Harvard Law professor and international trade expert Mark Wu.

“President Xi, much more than his predecessors, is assertive of this idea of the China dream — part of [which] is about national rejuvenation and China rightfully stepping back onto the global stage,” he said.

Why are countries signing on?

As of March, China had signed cooperation deals with 125 countries, according to a report from the Chinese government. Countries are often attracted by purely practical reasons.

“They might be doing so for lower costs on projects,” Wu said. “They might do so because others aren’t willing to do it, but the Chinese are.”

Projects might also have nefarious motivations. In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that Malaysia had promised shares in railroad and pipeline projects to Chinese officials in exchange for bailing them out of an embezzlement scandal engulfing then-prime minister Najib Razak.

But beyond specific projects, there are larger games afoot; countries may sign on to the initiative to jockey for political position with China or to hedge their fortunes against geopolitical rivals.

“Signing up for the Belt and Road is essentially a political exercise,” said Arthur Kroeber, a fellow at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center and managing director of financial research firm GaveKal Dragonomics. “You want to signal your support of China and therefore curry favor with decision-makers in Chinese institutions.”

Are there any downsides?

BRI projects have been blamed for damaging local environments, flouting regulatory processes and setting a low bar for global governance standards. And, as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence says, participants can be left to “drown” “in a sea of debt.”

Allegations that China offers countries loans they can’t possibly repay to gain geopolitical leverage have trailed the BRI for years. Critics began to point to Sri Lanka as the victim exemplar of this practice when it defaulted on payments for its port at Hambantota and signed the lease over to China for the next century.

But some experts say the debt trap critique is unfounded. “I don’t believe that it makes sense that China went into any of these loans seeking to create a very large debt burden on the recipient country. Chinese banks want to be repaid,” Glaser said.

Rather, it may reflect China’s views on a country’s right to make decisions for itself, according to Carnegie Asia Program senior fellow Yukon Huang.

“Critics would say some countries don’t have the capacity to make [Belt and Road investment] decisions sensibly,” he said. “A Chinese view is, ‘Well, that’s not our responsibility. It’s their responsibility.’”

What are the implications for the U.S.?

The Trump administration, which is currently ensnarled in a trade war with China, seems to have the political machinations of BRI top of mind.

“At a higher level, what the U.S. appears to be afraid of is that China will essentially be building this loose coalition of countries that support China, are within China’s orbit, or we could see authoritarianism strengthened around the world,” Glaser said.

China insists it does not want to be the region’s hegemon, and that the Belt and Road is about helping countries hop on China’s economic bandwagon. But suspicions among Americans persist that they expect the infrastructure loans to be repaid in more than just money.

“I think U.S. is worried China’s economic presence in a lot of countries has been able to buy over these governments and leaders to support China in terms of foreign policy and basically undermine U.S. influence,” said Princeton PhD candidate and BRI commentator Audrye Wong.

What comes next?  

Edward Cunningham, director of Ash Center China Programs at the Harvard Kennedy School, attended the second Belt and Road forum in Beijing in April. He told FRONTLINE the event pitched visitors on a grand vision of equitable economic growth led by China and claimed a fresh start for the infrastructure initiative.

“The overarching message was that China is able to export the model and will do so,” he said. “It was a mix of showmanship around these soaring narratives and a reset — saying this is a pivot to being more accountable to the outside world.”

In remarks opening the forum, President Xi promised future projects would address both environmental and ethical concerns.

“We need to pursue open, green and clean cooperation,” he said. “The Belt and Road is not an exclusive club; it aims to promote green development. We may launch green infrastructure projects, make green investment and provide green financing to protect the Earth which we all call home. In pursuing Belt and Road cooperation, everything should be done in a transparent way, and we should have zero tolerance for corruption.”

Whether these promises can be kept remains to be seen. Whatever unfolds, however, reflects a nation that is rising in power and growing confidence to wield it.

“Today, China has offered a view for the world: This is my version of the ‘Community of Common Destiny,’” said Harvard Kennedy school fellow and Belt and Road expert Shirley Yu. “The fundamental tenets of the Chinese version of common destiny, I think, are still being developed.”

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