China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative

A cyclist passes by construction cranes in Xi'an, China, a starting point of the New Silk Road.
A cyclist passes by construction cranes in Xi'an, China, a starting point of the New Silk Road. Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

China’s colossal infrastructure investments may usher in a new era of trade and growth for economies in Asia and beyond. But skeptics worry that China is laying a debt trap for borrowing governments.

Last updated January 28, 2020

A cyclist passes by construction cranes in Xi'an, China, a starting point of the New Silk Road.
A cyclist passes by construction cranes in Xi'an, China, a starting point of the New Silk Road. Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images
Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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 would stretch from East Asia to Europe, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence.

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Some analysts see the project as an unsettling extension of China’s rising power, and as the costs of many of the projects have skyrocketed, opposition has grown in some countries. Meanwhile, the United States shares the concern of some in Asia that the BRI could be a Trojan horse for China-led regional development and military expansion. Under President Donald J. Trump, Washington has raised alarm over Beijing’s actions, but it has struggled to offer governments in the region a more appealing economic vision.

What was the original Silk Road?

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The original Silk Road arose during the westward expansion of China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), which forged trade networks throughout what are today the Central Asian countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as modern-day India and Pakistan to the south. Those routes extended more than four thousand miles to Europe.

Central Asia was thus the epicenter of one of the first waves of globalization, connecting eastern and western markets, spurring immense wealth, and intermixing cultural and religious traditions. Valuable Chinese silk, spices, jade, and other goods moved west while China received gold and other precious metals, ivory, and glass products. Use of the route peaked during the first millennium, under the leadership of first the Roman and then Byzantine Empires, and the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) in China.

But the Crusades, as well as advances by the Mongols in Central Asia, dampened trade, and today Central Asian countries are economically isolated from each other, with intra-regional trade making up just 6.2 percent of all cross-border commerce. They are also heavily dependent on Russia, particularly for remittances—they make up one-third of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. By 2018, remittances had dipped from their 2013 highs due to Russia’s economic woes.

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What are China’s plans for its New Silk Road?

President Xi announced the initiative during official visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013. The plan was two-pronged: the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. The two were collectively referred to first as the One Belt, One Road initiative but eventually became the Belt and Road Initiative.

Xi’s vision included creating a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, both westward—through the mountainous former Soviet republics—and southward, to Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Such a network would expand the international use of Chinese currency, the renminbi, and “break the bottleneck in Asian connectivity,” according to Xi. (The Asian Development Bank estimated that the region faces a yearly infrastructure financing shortfall of nearly $800 billion.) In addition to physical infrastructure, China plans to build fifty special economic zones, modeled after the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, which China launched in 1980 during its economic reforms under leader Deng Xiaoping.

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Xi subsequently announced plans for the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road at the 2013 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Indonesia. To accommodate expanding maritime trade traffic, China would invest in port development along the Indian Ocean, from Southeast Asia all the way to East Africa and parts of Europe.

Corridors

China’s overall ambition for the BRI is staggering. To date, more than sixty countries—accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population—have signed on to projects or indicated an interest in doing so. Analysts estimate the largest so far to be the estimated $60 billion* China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a collection of projects connecting China to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. In total, China has already spent an estimated $200 billion on such efforts. Morgan Stanley has predicted China’s overall expenses over the life of the BRI could reach $1.2–1.3 trillion by 2027, though estimates on total investments vary.

What does China hope to achieve?

China has both geopolitical and economic motivations behind the initiative. Xi has promoted a vision of a more assertive China, while slowing growth and rocky trade relations with the United States have pressured the country’s leadership to open new markets for its goods.

To date, more than sixty countries—accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population—have signed on to projects or indicated an interest in doing so.

Experts see the BRI as one of the main planks of a bolder Chinese statecraft under Xi, alongside the Made in China 2025 economic development strategy. For Xi, the BRI serves as pushback against the much-touted U.S. “pivot to Asia,” as well as a way for China to develop new investment opportunities, cultivate export markets, and boost Chinese incomes and domestic consumption. “Under Xi, China now actively seeks to shape international norms and institutions and forcefully asserts its presence on the global stage,” writes CFR’s Elizabeth C. Economy.

At the same time, China is motivated to boost global economic links to its western regions, which historically have been neglected. Promoting economic development in the western province of Xinjiang, where separatist violence has been on the upswing, is a major priority, as is securing long-term energy supplies from Central Asia and the Middle East, especially via routes the U.S. military cannot disrupt.

More broadly, Chinese leaders are determined to restructure the economy to avoid the so-called middle-income trap. In this scenario, which has plagued close to 90 percent of middle-income countries since 1960, wages go up and quality of life improves as low-skilled manufacturing rises, but countries struggle to then shift to producing higher-value goods and services.

What are the potential roadblocks?

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. BRI projects are built using low-interest loans as opposed to aid grants. 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.

Examples of such criticisms abound. In Malaysia, Mahathir bin Mohamad, elected prime minister in 2018, campaigned against overpriced BRI initiatives, which he claimed were partially redirected to funds controlled by his predecessor. Once in office, he canceled $22 billion worth of BRI projects, although he later announced his “full support” for the initiative in 2019. In Kazakhstan, mass protests against the construction of Chinese factories swept the country in 2019, driven by concerns about costs as well as anger over the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang Province.

More such stories are likely, according to a 2018 report by the Center for Global Development, which notes that eight BRI countries are vulnerable to debt crises. CFR’s Belt and Road Tracker shows overall debt to China has soared since 2013, surpassing 20 percent of GDP in some countries.

 

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Some governments, in places such as Kenya and Zambia, are carefully studying BRI investments before they sign up, and candidates in Malaysia have run—and won—campaigns on anti-BRI platforms. Chinese leaders were reportedly surprised by such pushback, and BRI investment began to slow in late 2018. Yet by the end of 2019, BRI contracts again saw a significant uptick.

How has the United States responded to China-led regional integration?

The United States has shared other countries’ concerns about China’s intentions. Developing the economies of South and Central Asia is a long-standing U.S. goal that intensified after the start of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia. The Obama administration frequently referenced the need for the Afghan economy to move past foreign assistance, and in 2014 then-Deputy Secretary of State William Burns committed the United States to returning Central and South Asia “to its historic role as a vital hub of global commerce, ideas, and culture.” In this spirit, the Obama administration supported a $10 billion gas pipeline through Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. It also spent billions of dollars on roads and energy projects in Afghanistan and used its diplomatic muscle to help craft new regional cooperation frameworks to foster Central Asian economic links.

Some analysts have called on the United States to deepen its ties with Asian partners, as the Obama administration tried to do with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a deal rejected by Trump. The Trump administration has instead tried to counter the BRI with the BUILD Act. This consolidated the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. government agency for development finance, with components of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) into a separate agency with a $60 billion investment portfolio. Although this pales in comparison to the more than $1 trillion China is expected to spend on the BRI, advocates say it seeks to crowd in a larger pool of private investment by underwriting risk.

Some have argued that the United States might find a silver lining in the BRI. Jonathan E. Hillman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the United States could use BRI projects as a way to have China pay for infrastructure initiatives in Central Asia that are also in the U.S. interest.

What is the role for third countries?

Other countries have sought to balance their concerns about China’s ambitions against the BRI’s potential benefits.

India. India has tried to convince countries that the BRI is a plan to dominate Asia, warning of what some analysts have called a “String of Pearls” geoeconomic strategy whereby China creates unsustainable debt burdens for its Indian Ocean neighbors in order to seize control of regional choke points. In particular, New Delhi has long been unsettled by China’s decades-long embrace of its traditional rival, Pakistan. Meanwhile, India has provided its own development assistance to neighbors, most notably Afghanistan, where it has spent $3 billion on infrastructure projects.

The United States views India as a counterweight to a China-dominated Asia and has sought to knit together its strategic relationships in the region via the 2017 Indo-Pacific Strategy. Yet, despite U.S. misgivings, India was a founding member of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and Indian and Chinese leaders have invested in developing closer diplomatic ties. “India does a lot with China in the multilateral arena for its own reasons,” says CFR’s Alyssa Ayres.

Japan. Tokyo has a similar strategy, balancing its interest in regional infrastructure development with long-standing suspicions about China. In 2016, Japan committed to spending $110 billion on infrastructure projects throughout Asia. Japan has, with India, also agreed to develop the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), a plan to develop and connect ports from Myanmar to East Africa.

Europe. Several countries in Central and Eastern Europe have accepted BRI financing, and Western European states such as Italy, Luxembourg, and Portugal have signed provisional agreements to cooperate on BRI projects. Their leaders frame cooperation as a way to invite Chinese investment and potentially improve the quality of competitive construction bids from European and U.S. firms.

Others disagree. French President Emmanuel Macron has urged prudence, suggesting during a 2018 trip to China that the BRI could make partner countries “vassal states.” Other skeptics connect the BRI with climate change. The Institute of International Finance, a research group that analyzes risk for large Western banks, has reported that 85 percent of BRI projects can be linked to high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Others claim that China is using BRI funds to gain influence in Balkan countries that are on track to become EU members, thereby providing Chinese access to the heart of the European Union’s common market.

Russia. Moscow has become one of the BRI’s most enthusiastic partners, though it responded to Xi’s announcement at first with reticence, worried that Beijing’s plans would outshine Moscow’s vision for a “Eurasian Economic Union” and impinge on its traditional sphere of influence.

As Russia’s relationship with the West has deteriorated, however, President Vladimir Putin has pledged to link his Eurasian vision with the BRI. Some experts are skeptical of such an alliance, which they argue would be economically asymmetrical. Russia’s economy and its total trade volume are both roughly one-eighth the size of China’s—a gulf that the BRI could widen in the coming years.

*This corrects a previously cited figure.

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Resources

This Financial Times report on the BRI explores the political controversies—inside and outside China—that it has produced.

This Vox video explains the enormous scale and potential geopolitical outcomes of the BRI.

The consulting firm McKinsey looks at how the BRI could reshape global trade in this 2016 podcast.

CFR’s Belt and Road Tracker shows how the BRI has changed countries’ bilateral economic relationships with China over time.

A National Bureau of Asian Research special report looks at how the BRI could affect China’s overall security strategy.

In Foreign Affairs, Yuen Yuen Ang discusses how the Belt and Road Initiative has evolved in recent years.

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