There is a growing tide of opinion in the U.S. that treats China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an estimated to be $1 trillion system of infrastructure and connectivity projects in Asia and other parts of the world, as a grand strategy of epic economic and geopolitical proportions.
The basic narrative that has gained traction is as follows: This is Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative, designed to curry favour across the world by making investments in countries and environments where Western investors tend to shy away and by avoiding the sort of stringent restrictions and conditions Western countries tack on to foreign aid.
While there is truth to this characterisation, others add an even more ominous dimension. As succinctly summarised by David Fickling, they hold that China is “methodically assembling a network of client governments in hock to Beijing and advancing its military ambitions.”
It is true that, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, China has strong political and military ambitions that guide the installation of BRI projects. In countries where China has made significant investments in infrastructure there are certainly persuasive political incentives at play. Throughout Central Asia, China’s efforts at developing roads and other infrastructure in countries like Kyrgyzstan are closely tied to China’s plans to shore up security along its western frontier and improve its access to the region’s vast energy reserves.
In the Indian Ocean, China’s efforts to expand its presence and strategic footing in countries like Myanmar and the Maldives is no doubt guided by broader strategic objectives like strengthening Chinese trade routes and competing with India for influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Nevertheless, a closer look at how the initiative has been implemented, and at the many Chinese institutions involved in developing the initiative around the world, reveals a less sinister and more chaotic picture of the Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s Belt & Road Initiative is Not a Monolith
There is often a tendency among western observers to view Chinese foreign policy as a monolith. The prevalent logic follows like this: Xi Jinping has become the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong – the founder of the Chinese Communist Party. He has enshrined his own thought in the Chinese Communist Party doctrine.
With an authoritarian power structure centred around his leadership, he can draw up and ensure his political system acts according to a unified vision of China’s role abroad. This differs greatly from our image of American democracy. Whereas the U.S. has many institutions with authority to craft foreign and economic policy through dispersed decision making, diverse bureaucratic priorities, and checks and balances, Xi Jinping has nearly unilateral authority to craft foreign policy on his own.
Yet this contrast is overstated. Though Xi Jinping has significantly consolidated his control and personalised Chinese foreign policy-making around himself, Chinese foreign policy institutions aren’t as coordinated as meets the eye. There are many actors and institutions involved in Chinese foreign policy-making which don’t need to report to one another not even to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As Linda Jakobsen and Ryan Manuel overview, these actors instead compete, often brutishly, “for the favour of higher-ranking bodies,” essentially seeking Xi Jinping and the Communist Party’s political support. The fact that these institutions have strong incentive to vie for Xi’s goodwill means that actions and initiatives may be pursued that are not necessarily handcrafted in a dark boardroom chaired by Xi, but rather designed to act on the vague and broad objectives Xi delivers when expounding upon Chinese foreign policy principles, such as “building a community of common destiny.”
Applying this logic to the Belt and Road Initiative, we arrive at a very different narrative: the BRI, in reality, is a brand a grab-bag of initiatives and projects that numerous Chinese institutions independently design and advance. After all, rising Chinese investment and trade in regions like Asia and Africa long predates the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative by Xi Jinping in 2013. Upon this announcement, projects both new and old were placed under the BRI brand. A historical perspectives on the initiative therefore make it seem a bit more like a “Big Master Plan” than it actually is.
Recent research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies supports this different narrative. Of the six economic corridors China has publicly cited as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, CSIS found that only one of these, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (China’s flagship BRI corridor), has had a significant correlation between official corridor participation and higher levels of on-the-ground project activity. The others, such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the New Eurasia Land Bridge Economic Corridor, had no such correlation.
Though the jury is out over explanations of this disparity, the study’s lead, Jonathan Hillman, suggests, “that project activity on the ground is not adhering to China’s grand vision,” and that “interest groups at the regional, local, and firm level are incentivized to repackage their existing infrastructure work as supporting BRI and pursue new activities under the same banner.
” Further, “without specific criteria for what qualifies as a BRI project, the initiative has grown to encompass an endless list of unrelated activities.” Policy grab bags like this are not particularly renowned for their efficiency, and as shown by Hillman, there is clear evidence of duplicative efforts and waste resulting from BRI’s disjointed projects.
That is not to say there are no broader geostrategic objectives at play in the various projects involved with BRI. In numerous cases, the lack of any prospect for significant economic gains makes it abundantly clear that political and strategic concerns are front of mind in Beijing.
Journalist Tom Miller has noted that officials in Beijing privately thought they would lose 80% of the money loaned to Pakistan for BRI projects and 30% of money loaned to the Central Asian Republics. In cases like Pakistan where economic incentive isn’t driving Chinese foreign policy, geopolitical strategy is clearly the guiding force.
Often, BRI projects are rushed through without considering the partner country’s financial capacity, leading to political volatility and economic stagnation or decline. This problem is further compounded when the partner country in question has strong geopolitical incentive to strengthen its relationship with China.
In Pakistan, unpopular projects, particularly in its southwestern region, have worsened tensions between the central government and separatist groups in the Baluchistan province. They have also imposed significant strains on Pakistan’s public sector; just last month Islamabad cancelled a major power plant project due to financial constraints.
In countries like Myanmar, Chinese investments have been negotiated without adequate regard for concerns about local stakeholders, cultural attitudes, and environmental concerns. The Myitsone Dam is an excellent example of this disregard, where protests in 2011 erupted following growing local political dissent against the project.
The project has stalled ever since, despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s flirtation with restarting the project after her party won the general elections in 2015. To this day, major protests continue to call for the permanent termination of the project, sparked by renewed Chinese advocacy for resuming construction.
It is important to remember that the Chinese institutions involved in BRI take cues from Xi Jinping, but aren’t necessarily given a highly specific set of directions. This kind of political environment sometimes results in success, but nonetheless carries the risk of driving overly ambitious projects that end in failure.
This is not only a risk for Beijing, but for the international community. Global security objectives are undermined when countries face major debt crises, and domestically unpopular or stagnating infrastructure projects do little to help drive global development and ensure economic and political stability.
Understanding the Perspectives & Agency of BRI Partner Countries
In analysing the failures of BRI projects in parts of the world, there is a risk of sliding into a view of the initiative that only asks “What does this rising China want? Is it getting what it wants? What will our world look like if it gets what it wants?
And how does this affect U.S. power, influence, and values?” These are all important questions that are worthy of serious reflection and debate. However, in formalising a U.S. foreign policy response to BRI, equally important are the questions.“Why are countries pursuing these projects? How do they perceive their own ‘policy crossroads’? And given this, what would make our foreign policy objectives easier to achieve?”
An important aspect to keep in mind is that the projects that are part of the BRI moniker are sometimes first proposed by partner countries rather than the other way around. Or, put differently, local domestic forces see opportunity in leveraging Chinese willingness to embark on projects for their own interests. They then solicit China’s involvement, as a way of embedding their own connectivity strategy within BRI.
In that sense, there is a strong reactive and opportunistic element to China’s approach to the Belt & Road Initiative, meaning it is not purely a proactive plan for global development and geostrategic positioning.
It serves China’s interests for Xi Jinping to frame BRI as a forward-looking agenda for the purposes of branding and demonstrating Chinese global leadership, but that doesn’t match the facts-on-the-ground reality in all cases.
Sri Lanka is a good example of this; As Neil DeVotta an expert on Sri Lanka, argues the initial relationship that formed between Sri Lanka and China which lead to China’s acquisition of Hambantota Port, was driven by the Rajapaksa Administration’s attempt to leverage Chinese Investment for;
“its own domestic political, commercial, and regional agendas”
Of course, this does not absolve China of its role in magnifying Sri Lanka’s debt and acquiring the port. But it does signal a need to understand the different appeals that Chinese economic largesse holds in many countries and with political elites around the world. It is important to look at each case from within and without.
Moreover, in many places where Chinese investment is most strongly felt, perceptions of China are in fact positive, although aggregate perceptions globally remained mixed. In Africa, a continent which holds some of the most positive perceptions, more than 60% of the population in Tunisia, Kenya, and Nigeria, and over 50% in South Africa see China in a favourable light.
In this vein, David Dollar of the Brookings Institution makes an important point: to declare that China’s role in Africa is on balance a negative one, as is often the case in Western discussions, “suggest[s] that African populations do not know where their interests lie.” Yet this quasi-paternalism is exactly the trajectory that U.S. foreign policy institutions tend to assume.
Keeping Competitive Tensions Under Control
The stance toward China in Washington writ large in the past several years has taken on a much more hawkish lens than in years past. Though there has been for years now a strong general consensus that previous U.S. policy toward China was ineffective, prior to the Trump administration there was no evident consensus on what direction the U.S. should take. With trade rising to the forefront of U.S.-China relations, the pendulum has swung decisively towards a more confrontational approach to the bilateral relationship.
Despite the dissonance in values and many of the two countries’ interests, there is substantial risk in adopting a view of China that is solely adversarial. Such a robust focus on trade disputes with China creates spillover of bilateral tension into other areas of policy where cooperation might be mutually beneficial or necessary to keep the relationship under control. It is important to remember that the U.S. and China need not be rivals on every issue.
However, combining the structural rise in U.S.- China tensions with the U.S. agencies’ need to remain relevant (and funded) in a Trump administration that came in with a highly sceptical view toward foreign development assistance, and you get a U.S. development community that is more confrontational toward Chinese investment globally.
In September, USAID’s Political Director Jim Richardson remarked, “We have seen where the U.S. recedes and this is … my message, and our message to the White House we have seen tangibly where the U.S. government or USAID has withdrawn, China has filled the gap.” U.S. foreign policy and development institutions have taken on an increasingly competitive, zero-sum stance toward Chinese investment globally, aiming to “counter” this investment.
Within the confines of the Belt and Road Initiative, Africa is a prime example. Over the last 30 years, China has developed a heavy economic footprint in Africa, which is now increasingly accompanied by a sizeable security footprint. The classically cited example is the relatively new Chinese military base in Djibouti, which has raised U.S. security sensitivities in the Red Sea, as evidenced by National Security Adviser John Bolton’s remarks in December.
The U.S. is right to be wary of China’s increasing security role on the continent, but must also recognise that the majority of China’s initiatives in Africa over the years have been driven by changing senses of business and economic opportunity.
The militarisation of U.S. foreign policy in Africa and elsewhere, combined with rising tensions with Beijing, risks driving the U.S. to miss significant windows of opportunity to collaborate and improve American influence in ways that don’t involve increasing military commitments at a time when Americans are sceptical of military intervention.
As Lyle Goldstein puts it, “instead of ‘seeking out monsters to destroy’ in Africa or bemoaning every Chinese initiative there, America should thoroughly demilitarise its approach…” to the continent.
Particularly at a time when Africa has a particular need for greater workforce development, a renewed focus on human capital, regulatory capacity-building, and greater U.S. business engagement could serve as an ideal complement to China’s more robust focus on infrastructure, and enhance the U.S. image there.
In many ways, U.S. officials are expressing legitimate concerns over some of the most significant drawbacks of Chinese projects around the world. Are there major flaws with BRI projects and with the way Chinese state-owned-enterprises have carried them out? Absolutely. But there is a real need for infrastructure investment and improvement in many parts of the world.
And it is because of these flaws, and the many geopolitical and economic risks that follow from failing projects, social tensions, skyrocketing debt, issues with government transparency, escalating rivalries, and so forth, that the U.S. should focus on driving an agenda of positive change, alongside a renewed prioritisation of diplomacy.
A more productive and beneficial approach than adopting reactive policies out of distrust and insecurity of Chinese investment globally would be a proactive U.S. approach that advances a constructive vision. The U.S. should ensure that it is not simply a part of the global conversation on infrastructure, but central to driving that conversation.
As Evan Medeiros recently proposed on the Tea Leaves Podcast, one productive step would be to host a global infrastructure summit that is inclusive of BRI, Japanese and Indian initiatives, and so forth.
This would mean genuinely accepting that Asians, Africans, Europeans, and Americans all want better infrastructure and that the Chinese market is widely seen as a major (if not necessarily the leading) driver of infrastructure development. In promoting this broader conversation, the U.S. could actually wield significant influence over the outcomes of connectivity and investment projects on a global level.
In many of the countries where BRI projects have been deployed, governance is weak, or at least suffers from critical gaps. Infrastructure projects nearly always have their social, macroeconomic, and environmental risks regardless of whether they are China-led, U.S.-led, or Japan-led but strengthening governance and civil society is helpful in reducing vulnerability to those risks.
This is an area in which the U.S. has plenty of experience and can play an integral role, not in a “nation-building” sense, but by supporting the development of basic institutional capacity, advising and equipping regulators, and working in partnership with the IMF to help countries keep better data on their debt.
Even with recent bipartisan moves to greatly augment the United States’ capacity for global infrastructure development, the U.S. cannot match China’s budget. Nor should it try to.
Washington can boost its soft power and simultaneously alleviate the concerns many countries share about their role in BRI and its influence upon their economy and politics, avoiding the pitfalls of lambasting any country that accepts Chinese money.
In short, the U.S. should become a constructive critic of the Belt and Road, but be pragmatic, play to its strengths, and recognise BRI for what it is, rather than what it fears most.