Photo by Xinhua
In September and October 2013, Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia (Xinhua, 2016). 10 years have passed since, and we were fortunate to host Paola Morselli from the Italian Institute for International Political Studies for a discussion on the past decade of BRI. To read Morselli’s elaborate analysis of the impact of the BRI over the past 10 years, please see this article.
During the discussion, Morselli approached the BRI’s track record from three angle’s: The BRI’s effectiveness, the reputation of the BRI, and the geopolitical implications of the BRI. Before recapping the discussion, let us briefly explore what the BRI actually is.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative in a nutshell
The BRI is a collection of massive infrastructure projects that China launched across Eurasia from 2013 onwards. The original idea was to enhance the connectivity between East Asia and Europe, though the BRI has expanded to other regions, as well. The BRI has a land-component, consisting of railways, highways, bridges and energy pipelines, and a sea component, consisting of ports. Beyond hard infrastructure, China invests in economic zones across the 147 countries that participate in the BRI (McBride, Berman & Chatzky, 2023). According to Xi Jinping, speaking at the Belt and Road Forum in October 2023, the BRI “aims to enhance policy, infrastructure, trade, financial and people-to-people connectivity, inject new impetus into the global economy, create new opportunities for global development, and build a new platform for international economic cooperation” (Xinhua, 18 October 2023). Whether these are the ‘true’ motivations behind the BRI is anyone’s guess. Chatham House identifies three different reasons why China initiated the BRI:
1. To enhance China’s international economic independence and power.
2. To find a destination for China’s industrial overcapacity.
3. To stimulate development in China’s central provinces (Jie & Wallace, 2021).
Back to Morselli’s take on the BRI during the STEAR event.
1. The BRI’s effectiveness
Morselli argued that the BRI has been effective as a facilitator of economic growth and trade. Since 2013, the trade value between China and the BRI countries has doubled (though undoubtedly the BRI is not the only factor at play here). Als,o the BRI gives developing countries a viable alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for financing, and promotes cooperation among developing countries. However, the BRI is not without its disappointments and controversies. The BRI has not delivered on all its economic promises. Projects and economic gains often take much longer than expected. For instance, many of the jobs created by the BRI went to Chinese, rather than to the local population. Also, the BRI enhanced the debt problems of many countries, and China is reluctant to restructure debts of BRI countries that have trouble paying back loans to China.
2. The reputation of the BRI
In general, the view of the BRI is quite positive, especially in Asia, where most BRI projects are being implemented. In Africa, the views on the BRI are mixed. Some countries, such as Ethiopia, welcome Chinese investment, while countries like Zambia are very weary of Chinese projects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the EU, the US, India and Japan are very sceptical of the BRI. The image of the BRI is shaped by China’s actions as a geopolitical actor. To illustrate, the reputation of the BRI in Southeast Asia is affected by territorial disputes between Southeast Asian countries and China.
3. Geopolitical implications of the BRI
Although the BRI’s core consists of hard infrastructure, it can also be regarded as China’s most successful soft power tool. Morselli argued that China initiated the BRI in response to Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, a shift in US foreign policy to Asia. China did not want to be isolated by the US. Via the BRI, China was branding itself as an internationally minded power. The BRI moreover gives China the narrative of presenting a development model that is different from those presented by organisations such as the World Bank, a model relying on South-South cooperation. The BRICS, a cooperation platform consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, is exemplary of this narrative. Beyond soft power, the BRI also has a hard power component, as it gives China access to 96 ports across the world, which it could potentially use for military purposes. The geopolitical aspects of the BRI are not lost on the EU, which has come up with its alternative: Global Gateway.
Future of the BRI
Asked by one of the participants whether the BRI could become more of a Eurasian, rather than an exclusively Chinese project, Morselli responded negatively. At its core, the BRI will remain a Chinese project. However, China has been trying to give the BRI a more sustainable and transparent image. Moreover, recently the BRI has declined in prominence in Chinese official discourse. Attention has shifted to newer initiatives launched by Xi Jinping, such as the Global Civilization Initiative and the Global Security Initiative. As such, the BRI is facing an uncertain future.
STEAR is grateful to Paola Morselli for her willingness to speak at our event. This article is largely based on the STEAR event with Morselli, but the interpretation of Morselli’s arguments, and any mistakes this interpretation may contain, belong to the author of the article, Koen Donatz.
Jie, Y., & Wallace, J. (2021). What is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chatham House. Retrieved from: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/09/what-chinas-belt-and-road- initiative-bri McBride, J., Berman, N., & Chatzky, A. (2023). China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative Xinhua (24 June 2016). Chronology of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Retrieved from: http://en.people.cn/n3/2016/0624/c90883-9077342.html Xinhua (18 October 2023). (BRF2023) Full text of Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at 3rd Belt and Road Forum for Int’l Cooperation. Retrieved from: https://english.news.cn/20231018/7bfc16ac51d443c6a7a00ce25c972104/c.html