This video by CaspianReport presents an overview of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative Project. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the launch of both the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, two ambitious infrastructure development and investment initiatives that would stretch from Eastern Asia to Western Europe. The project, termed as either the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. Some analysts see the project as an extension of China’s rising power on the global stage. Additionally, the US is concerned that the BRI could be a Trojan horse for China-led regional development, military expansion, and the decline in the bilateral global order implemented by the US over the past few decades. Here is an analysis of the BRI project.
The original Silk Road came into being 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 parts of the Middle East such as present-day Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and into parts of Europe including modern-day Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal. 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. 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. With the advent of the Crusades in the 11th Century, as well as the conquering of China by the Mongols during the 13th Century, the old Silk Road trade routes began to lose much influence and their decline in influence and use economically isolated Central Asian countries from each other.
President Xi Jinping first announced the BRI during 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 use of Chinese currency, while new infrastructure could “break the bottleneck in Asian connectivity,” according to Xi. In addition to physical infrastructure, China plans to build numerous economic zones, modeled after the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, which China launched in 1980 during its economic reforms under leader Deng Xiaoping. 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.
China’s overall ambition for the BRI is staggering. As of early 2019, more than sixty countries, accounting for nearly 70% 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 $68 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a collection of projects connecting China to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. Additionally, the trade and infrastructure development agreements between China, Iran, and Russia constitute a major part of the BRI initiative. In total, China has already spent an estimated $200 billion on such efforts. It has been predicted that China’s overall expenses over the life of the BRI could reach over $1 trillion by 2027, though estimates on total investments vary.
China has both geopolitical and economic motivations behind the BRI. President Xi Jinping has promoted a vision of a more assertive China and sees China’s rise as an opportunity to end the US-dominated world stage. Additionally, China’s economic growth has declined somewhat in recent years, which has put pressure on the country’s leadership to open up new markets for its goods and excess industrial capacity. International observers see the BRI as one of the main planks of Chinese statecraft under Xi, alongside the Made in China 2025 economic development strategy.
The BRI is also seen as a Chinese response to a renewed US focus on Asia, launched by the Obama administration in 2011. Many in China read this as an effort to contain China by expanding US economic ties in Southeast Asia. In a 2015 speech, retired Chinese General Qiao Liang described the BRI as “a hedge strategy against the eastward move of the US.” At the same time, China was 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 US military cannot disrupt.
Despite the overwhelming success of the BRI thus far, there have been some roadblocks preventing its full implementation. While several developing countries in need of new roads, railways, ports, and other infrastructure have welcomed BRI investments enthusiastically, the initiative has also stoked opposition, particularly related to the costs associated with the project in relation to the overall GDPs and resources of many of the developing nations that have expressed interest in signing onto the project. Additionally, some BRI investments have required the use of Chinese firms and their bidding processes have lacked transparency. As a result, contractors have inflated costs, leading to canceled projects and political pushback.
Several major world powers have also expressed some concern regarding the implementation of the BRI project. For example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi argued that the BRI is an embodiment of a “String of Pearls” geoeconomic strategy whereby China creates unsustainable debt burdens for its Indian Ocean neighbors and potentially takes control of regional choke points. Additionally, the US government under both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have argued that the BRI represents a major threat against continued American hegemony and power and have responded to the BRI with proposals ranging from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the BUILD Act. Despite much US opposition to the BRI, some international observers argue that the implementation of the project may benefit the US in a number of ways. For example, Jonathan Hillman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies stated that the US could use BRI projects as a way to have China pay for infrastructure initiatives in Central Asia that are also in the interest of the US.
Here is the link to the full video: