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The People’s Republic of China celebrated a landmark anniversary in September: ten years of the country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). What was first announced as an ambitious program in September 2013 has blossomed into an all-encompassing foreign policy, tilting the balance of world power over the last ten years. Engaging with over 150 countries since its inception, BRI has shifted the economic development model across much of the globe. China expert Matt Ferchen has called this new model a “commerce-is-development view,” a development model that leaves space for China to support emerging economies and project its political influence abroad.
It is doubtful that this anniversary marks the end of BRI. On the contrary, Chinese officials would like you to see it as an early milestone while offering a moment to reflect on this landmark policy’s development and execution over the past decade. From the Central Asian steppe to Southern European ports, BRI has redefined global development and solidified Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s prominent place on the world stage. While tensions between China and the West rise higher than ever, we will look at how we got here and shed some insight on the next chapter of the BRI.
China’s leader announced BRI less than a year into his tenure as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. On a fall 2013 trip to Astana, Kazakhstan, Xi Jinping announced his ambition to revamp the historical Silk Road trading route that once traversed Central Asia and the Middle East to connect China with Europe. A month later, in October 2013, while on a state visit to Indonesia, he announced that this new Eurasian land bridge would be complemented by a revitalized “21st century Maritime Silk Road.” To learn more about the BRI’s past and present, Spheres of Influence spoke with Lauren Shykora, a Master of International Affairs candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “The BRI was such an ambitious project from the start,” says Shykora, “and it was one of the world’s first introductions to Xi Jinping’s foreign policy after he took power in 2013.”
Drawing a parallel to China’s grandiose trading routes along the ancient Silk Road, BRI initially pointed to the ambitions of the country’s new leader. Shykora, who at the time was studying International Relations at the University of British Columbia, saw these early years as China’s effort to increase its global reputation and economic influence, which at the time remained relatively weak:
“Under Deng Xiaoping [China’s leader from 1978-1989], China changed dramatically to open up to the world for foreign investment and trade under a gradualist approach of reform and opening. China became the world’s go-to manufacturer, and its industries gained technical skills [to utilize] for large-scale infrastructure projects under the BRI today.”
Now, three decades after Deng Xiaoping’s critical reforms, China used its industrial prowess to execute one of the most ambitious foreign policies of the 20th century.
Finding Its Footing
In its early years, BRI made its mark by popping up across different corners of the globe, some less expected than others. For instance, China got to work developing major infrastructure projects in South and Central Asia, with one of the BRI’s largest investments to date being the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). A multi-faceted project valued at roughly $62 billion, the CPEC is expected to grow beyond its stated objectives of economic and infrastructure partnerships to reach the domains of agriculture, fibre optics, and surveillance. While this partnership has proven beneficial to both parties, some of China’s other neighbours and strategic allies, most notably Russia, will likely suffer economically and strategically at an increased Chinese dominance across Eurasia.
China’s BRI projects have now spread far beyond its regional corridor, engaging with 52 African nations, and over 40 countries across Europe and Latin America. In 2015, Vice News highlighted how the BRI was changing the landscape of the small European country of Montenegro. With BRI loans, a handful of Chinese construction companies had to build the Balkan nation’s first major freeway project to enhance the country’s trade and transport industries.
While Montenegro might seem like an odd place for China to invest its money, the country’s peripheral relation to the EU has made this an attractive space for China to assert influence in Europe and allowed Beijing to weaken the regional influence of Brussels. Interviewing a senior Montenegrin political advisor, Vice’s reporter voiced concern over the country’s warm welcome to Chinese investment and influence. “This is not a Chinese investment,” the advisor retorted. “This is the investment of the government of Montenegro. We are taking the risk, that is the difference.” However, eight years after construction began, the entire project has yet to be completed, and Montenegro owes a whopping €1 billion to its Chinese counterparts.
A New Development Model?
Often dubbed a “21st century Marshall Plan,” the BRI has significantly affected developing countries through financing and major infrastructure projects. While the case of Montenegro suggests a tendency towards precarious partnerships, China’s adaptation amid the COVID-19 pandemic has shown its ability to tread carefully in an unexpected crisis. “Chinese industry faced long periods of inactivity,” reminds Shykora “as a result of extended lockdowns under the CCP’s zero-COVID policy, which inevitably affected ongoing projects. [The pandemic] also changed the economic circumstances of BRI recipient countries, some of which have now fallen into severe debt crises and are unable to pay back their loans.” While pundits quickly critiqued China for setting up unstable countries to fall into debt, Shykora emphasizes that the opposite has happened. “China has … acted responsibly in relieving debts for a number of these countries.”
Overall, the BRI has shifted global development towards a Chinese model, a nebulous win-win scenario Beijing insists on through its relations with other developing countries. Shykora says that Canada “simply [cannot] compete at the scale of China in these types of development projects.” While this is true, she also mentions that “the BRI has been looked at by analysts as more than just an economic endeavour, but one that builds China’s power and alliances in key regions of the world.”
With investments in three-quarters of UN member states, China’s BRI is greater than building bridges for countries who need them. “In my view,” Shykora reflects, “the BRI is a perfect example of just how intertwined economics and geopolitics are in Xi Jinping’s foreign policy.” A striking example of this can be seen in the hot-button issue of digital sovereignty, as China has convinced several BRI partner countries, including Uganda, Tanzania, Thailand, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, and Kazakhstan, to adopt restrictive cybersecurity laws to mirror its efforts at creating a closed online space.
What Lies Ahead?
Earlier this year, leaders from the five Central Asian countries were invited to Northwest China for the inaugural China-Central Asia Summit. The first high-level meeting of its kind between the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the summit proved to show China’s interest in building political and economic “regional unity” across the lands of its historic Silk Road route. The summit took place a day before the G7’s 2023 meeting in Hiroshima and stood as a stark contrast to the global leaders’ annual conference one time zone away.
“Looking at it with a long-term perspective,” Shykora says, “I think the challenges faced in these first ten years will look less like shifts and more like road bumps.” While the first decade of China’s BRI has seen dramatic global events like the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the policy has persevered. Even amid a recent economic slowdown in China, BRI projects continue to reshape developing countries and geopolitical realities across the globe. While recent Western policies like the US’s Pivot to Asia and Canada’s more recent Indo-Pacific Strategy have presented alternatives to the BRI and the Chinese development model, the stage sets BRI to outrun these strategies in the long run. “A decade into the initiative,” Shykora highlighted, “this is still the early phase.”
Edited by Chelsea Bean