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Jennifer Hillman and David Sacks are codirectors of the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force report on a U.S. Response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is co-chaired by Jacob J. Lew and Gary Roughead.
In the fall of 2013, shortly after assuming power, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed building a land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt,” extending from China to Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, and a sea-based “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” connecting China to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe via major sea lanes.
Together, these came to form the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), still known officially in Chinese as “One Belt, One Road,” which quickly became Xi’s signature foreign policy undertaking. Under BRI, Chinese banks and companies seek to fund and build roads, power plants, ports, railways, 5G networks, and fiber-optic cables around the world.
BRI has a wide reach, but which countries are participants? The answer is surprisingly hard to determine, since China is opaque about the exact contours of BRI and there are different levels of participation in the initiative. But our CFR Independent Task Force report outlines what we were able to discover about the participating countries in BRI.
Initially, BRI sought to connect countries in Central, South, and Southeast Asia with China. In the two years following BRI’s launch, only ten countries formally joined the initiative by signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) or cooperation agreement. In 2015, however, BRI began to outgrow its initial corridors, as an additional seventeen countries joined. In 2017, for instance, China extended BRI to Latin America, describing it as a “natural extension of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.”
In the fall of 2017, BRI was incorporated into the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution. Following that development, a burst of activity ensued, with an additional sixty-one countries joining BRI in 2018 alone. In all, 139 countries have joined BRI, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo standing as the most recent entrant.
BRI is now a truly global endeavor: thirty-nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa have joined the initiative, as well as thirty-four in Europe and Central Asia, twenty-five in East Asia and the Pacific, eighteen in Latin America and the Caribbean, seventeen in the Middle East and North Africa, and six in South Asia. These 139 members of BRI, including China, account for 40 percent of global GDP. Sixty-three percent of the world’s population lives within the borders of BRI countries.
While China emphasizes the benefits of BRI for developing countries, Beijing has enlisted countries of all income levels to endorse the initiative. Twenty-six low income countries and thirty-nine lower middle income countries have joined the initiative, accounting for just under half of all the participants. By contrast, forty-one upper middle income countries, as well as thirty-three high income countries, have signed on, accounting for over half of the BRI participants.
BRI members include U.S. allies and partners such as Greece, Italy, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as countries that align with China geopolitically such as Cambodia and Laos.
While BRI members are diverse, those countries that have refrained from joining BRI are generally more democratic, politically stable, and economically developed than those that have endorsed the initiative.
Not all BRI members, however, host BRI projects. Some countries merely formally endorse BRI as a concept and pledge to cooperate with China to promote the initiative. In Italy’s nonbinding MoU with China, for example, the two countries pledged to “work together within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to translate mutual complementary strengths into advantages for practical cooperation and sustainable growth.”
Italy and China committed to enhancing their policy dialogue, cooperating to develop infrastructure connectivity, expanding trade and investment, and building people-to-people ties—but the MoU does not identify specific projects. As our Task Force report details, this MoU was largely symbolic and there has been little follow-up since it was inked. Indeed, after signing this MoU in Rome, Xi traveled to Paris, where he announced significantly more Chinese investment, even though France did not sign on to BRI.
In many instances, the push to get countries to join BRI is likely motivated less by a desire to build infrastructure and more by a goal of increasing China’s narrative power and BRI’s appeal to the developing world. As part of BRI, Xi Jinping invites heads of state to China for Belt and Road forums, contributing to the view that Beijing is an economic power on par with the United States.
At the first Belt and Road Forum in May 2017, representatives from over one hundred countries descended on Beijing, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lauded BRI’s “immense potential,” praised it for having “sustainable development as the overarching objective,” and pledged the “United Nations system stands ready to travel this road with you.”
With 139 countries now formally affiliated with BRI and endorsing the project, this signals to prospective members that many of the world’s most powerful and economically dynamic countries have vetted BRI, and therefore they can embrace BRI projects. If or when China approaches a country about initiating a BRI project within its borders, the country can rest assured that the vast majority of the world has signed onto BRI.
In recent years, BRI has extended its reach to the corners of the globe. Even if not every BRI country hosts BRI projects, their endorsement of the initiative lends credibility to it.
In the coming years, Beijing will likely continue to lobby countries to sign on to the initiative, focusing its attention on Latin America and Western Europe, where regional heavyweights such as Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Spain remain outside of BRI.