Will The Belt And Road Initiative Transform The World Order?

The Belt and Road Initiative is China's attempt to project its soft power and to alter the world order to reflect China's preferences. While the project has a mixed record thus far, it is too early to jump to conclusions about the project's relevance.

Will The Belt And Road Initiative Transform The World Order?

Launched in 2013 as the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road,’ and then renamed as the ‘One Belt, One Road Initiative,’ China remains steadfastly confident that the BRI is one of the projects that will pave its path to emerging as the undisputed global economic power in the coming years. Unprecedented economic progress in the last 43 years reflects the dynamism of the CCP leadership, starting from Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping. Transforming from a largely low-income agricultural economy to a vibrant and vigorous economy is imbued with vision and strategic foresight.

The holding of the third BRI forum on October 17-18, 2023 in Beijing reflected an innovative mindset to sustain China’s ‘great leap forward.’ Calling for a peaceful and conflict-free world, the Chinese president Xi Jinping ruled out economic coercion and bloc confrontation by asserting that “we reject unilateral sanctions, economic coercion, decoupling and delinking” in his address. Xi outlined eight major steps to promote meaningful cooperation, focusing on multidimensional networks, open economies, practical cooperation, green development, scientific innovation, people-to-people contacts, evaluation systems and multilateral cooperation. 

Focusing on the basic requirements of soft power like trade, aid, technology and cultural diplomacy, China has been determined since 1979 to concentrate on its internal affairs, particularly on economic development. China learned lessons from its last war, which it fought against Vietnam in January 1979 and decided not to get itself involved in any armed conflict. BRI is primarily a reflection of China’s strategic vision to augment its influence in different parts of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa by providing assistance for the development of infrastructure and industrialization. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multibillion dollar project which coincided with the launching of the BRI is a vivid example of Beijing’s adherence to soft power and to ensure its investment in Pakistan for pursing its short and long term interests. 

According to Felix K. Chang, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in his analysis entitled, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Politics Over Economics” on September 19, 2023: “at the BRI’s 2013 launch, Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping waxed lyrical about a new “transcontinental Silk Road linking East and West.” 

By the time the Second Belt and Road Forum was organized in 2019, cases of debt-distressed countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka had already become well known. Even countries once keen on the BRI, like Malaysia, pulled back. Thus, Beijing was cornered into using that forum to calm concerns about the initiative. 

The BRI’s intent seemed clear: to resurrect the ancient Silk Road in the form of newly built airports, seaports, railways, and roads. All involved would profit. China would benefit from Europe’s industrial and high-tech exports, and Europe would benefit from China’s consumer exports. The in-between countries would benefit from the modern infrastructure by becoming shipment centers, and possibly developing new value-added manufacturing and services industries, much like what Singapore did in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Referring to challenges confronted by BRI particularly in Africa and Asia, Felix Chang argues that, “certainly, according to Beijing, some of the BRI’s biggest successes have been in Africa. That might be because the infrastructure built in Africa was not primarily designed to support trade between Asia and Europe. Rather it was intended to support African trade, at least according to the UN trade database. While some countries saw their trade balances improve, others saw theirs significantly deteriorate, including Angola, one of the largest recipients of BRI financing.” Therefore, “unfortunately for countries like Angola, infrastructure development alone does not guarantee economic success. By the time of the Second Belt and Road Forum in 2019, cases of debt-distressed countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka had already become well known. Even countries once keen on the BRI, like Malaysia, pulled back. Thus, Beijing used that forum to calm concerns about the initiative. But just how far BRI had strayed from its original economic vision could be seen in the forum’s long and meandering list of deliverables, which had little to do with trade routes between Asia and Europe”.

With perseverance and intelligence along with patience and planning, China is not in a hurry to take BRI to its logical conclusion and is confident that such a vital project of the century will sail smoothly. In its essence, as remarked by Felix Chang, “broadly, Beijing has long been concerned about encirclement by Washington. The BRI was, in part, meant to ensure that America could not isolate China. To that end, Beijing has always regarded the initiative as a way to garner political support and create new spheres of influence. In that regard, the BRI has been somewhat successful. China has parlayed its BRI investments into political sway in various parts of the world, at the United Nations, and even among American allies in Europe. Certainly, China has effectively used the BRI to persuade several countries to drop their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan (e.g., Panama in 2017, the Dominican Republic in 2018, Solomon Islands in 2019, Kiribati in 2020, Nicaragua in 2022, and Honduras in 2023). Helping developing countries to industrialize could boost China’s political capital further.” It is yet to be seen how and to what extent China is able to adhere to the principles of neutrality, and non-interference in internal affairs of other countries and to what extent it will withstand the American policy of ‘containment.’ 

According to a write-up published by Council on Foreign Relations written by James McBride, Noah Berman and Andrew Chatzky on February 2, 2023: “China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the vast collection of development and investment initiatives was originally devised to link East Asia and Europe through physical infrastructure. In the decade, the project has expanded to Africa, Oceania, and Latin America, significantly broadening China’s economic and political influence.”

They further argued that, “the Belt and Road Initiative has also stoked opposition. For some countries that take on large amounts of debt to fund infrastructure upgrades, BRI money is seen as a potential poisoned chalice. China views BRI projects as a commercial endeavor with loans close to a market interest rate that it expects to be fully repaid. Some BRI investments have involved opaque bidding processes and required the use of Chinese firms. As a result, contractors have inflated costs, leading to canceled projects and political backlash.” American and Indian concerns about BRI are not new and both are trying to provide an alternate investment project for the developing countries. 

Even if the countries of Asia and Africa are the beneficiaries of BRI in terms of the modernization of infrastructure and industrial development, critics argue that the entire project is aimed at putting the recipients of Chinese investments into debt traps.

The participation of 130 countries in BRI forum which concluded on October 18 reflects the dynamic nature of that project. Whether the BRI can help to positively transform the prevailing global order and break the monopoly of the US pre-eminence in global affairs depends on the five ‘Cs’: credibility, capability, capacity consistency and clarity. 

One needs to examine the possibility of the BRI transforming the world order from three angles. First, although China and Russia are important players in global order, they are unable to mitigate the American and Western hold over the world power structure, unless Moscow is able to withdraw from Ukraine and focus on its economy. By using hard power against its former republics, Russia is unable to deal with numerous challenges which the West is exploiting under the ‘containment’ policy. 

While President Vladimir Putin participated in the BRI forum, the Chinese President Xi Jinping must have tried to persuade him to delink from armed conflicts. The surge of violence in Gaza is another formidable challenge which Russia and China are facing because the so-called world order is fast drifting towards a chaotic configuration. The focus on BRI will surely pay rich dividends to China and test its leadership qualities. Second, even if the countries of Asia and Africa are the beneficiaries of BRI in terms of modernization of infrastructure and industrial development, critics argue that the entire project is aimed to put the recipients of Chinese investments into debt traps. The examples of Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan should be taken seriously, as all four countries are now under billions of dollars of debt and will find it difficult to repay the borrowed money. The United States along with India, Australia, UK and Japan is working overtime to counter BRI, and termed it as a project which will suck recipient countries into debt traps. Yet, the purpose of the BRI forum is also to dispel negative and hostile perspectives on such a vital project, which according to Beijing will be a game changer and pull many developing countries from the clutches of poverty and backwardness. 

Even though the ‘dependency syndrome’ argument continues to be projected by critics to discredit BRI, from any standpoint, the Belt and Road Initiative can be seen as a project of the 21st century, which will have far reaching ramifications in terms of connectivity, promoting trade and the modernization of infrastructure across Asia. So far, China has managed to sustain BRI and to take it to the next level. Yet, China is also mindful of the fact that some countries where BRI was launched lacked the requisite professionalism and sound work ethic to implement the projects. It will be a test case for Beijing and those involved in the BRI projects to make use of the opportunity for trade, economic and infrastructure development. Likewise, a positive transformation of world order to favor China's interests is also one of the goals of the BRI.

The author is the former Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Karachi, and can be reached at amoonis@hotmail.com.