In 2013, China announced the inception of the Belt and Road Initiative, its colossal plan to create a massive network of global trade and invest in infrastructure development in dozens of countries across the world. Since its inception, the BRI has caused a worldwide stir. Some countries view it as a threat, fearing that it’s China’s attempt to dominate the global economy. Others, including the 130 countries that have endorsed the initiative, see it as a means of prosperity, an opportunity to climb up the ladder of the global hierarchy. 

Regardless, the BRI is a pretty big deal, and it will likely shape the future of trade, cultural exchange, politics, and human rights. To help make some more sense of it, we’ve put together this page to try and explain it a little better. 

How does it work?

The Belt and Road Initiative comprises an overland “belt” across Central Asia, the Middle East, and into Europe, and the “road,” which refers to a vast network of maritime sea routes, connecting Oceania, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The plan is reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road, China’s historic trading route and the epicenter of one of the first waves of globalization.

China is investing heavily in the development of infrastructure in partner countries in these regions. They are funding the creation of ports, railroads, bridges, and dams, and establishing special economic zones and trade agreements across dozens of mostly less-developed countries. While there’s no official participant list, it’s estimated that around 70 countries are involved. 

Since the laying of the BRI groundwork, China has become the main investor in the Middle East and Central Asia, and is likely to take the cake in Africa and Southeast Asia in the near future as well. The project is massive and highly ambitious, and while it looks a bit different in each country, the BRI blurs the line between economics, politics, and military. 

What can China gain from this?

The BRI is a huge financial opportunity for China, the world’s second largest economy. Economically speaking, it’s fairly clear what China will gain – investment opportunities and more countries to export to, thus growing their global export markets. It will also significantly boost Chinese incomes and allow for more domestic consumption.

Money translates into power. The growth of the BRI also means that China will likely have more countries taking their side on many of their problems and controversies, including matters involving Taiwan, Hong Kong, South China Sea, Xinjiang, and Tibet. There is an unspoken rule that when doing business with China, those issues aren’t brought up. 

The BRI gives China some substantial leverage over other countries, especially countries that are smaller and poorer. Already, a handful of small nations, including Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, have switched their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, due to increased pressure and funding from China. While these island nations are small, poor, and underpopulated, the more states China can pull under its sway, the more they can bolster their claims of Taiwan as legitimate.

As the trade war with the US worsens, the BRI serves as a cushion for China, allowing them to stay afloat and to not have to rely on the US for trade. 

What does this mean for the world?

The BRI is still in its early stages, but it is already predicted that it will have a profound effect on the global system. It is essentially the vehicle that is driving China’s ascension to global superpower status. China is becoming increasingly assertive on the global stage. Not only is the BRI increasing China’s wealth and status, but it is also forging a chain of countries supporting China. 

Many smaller countries will no longer need to rely on the US and other Western countries for trade. Many countries across the less-developed world have grown wary of western involvement and interference in their regions, holding deep scars of colonialism and wars fought for oil or dominance in the name of preserving democracy and human rights. China, which tends to stay out of people’s business more comparatively speaking, offers a promising alternative.

The BRI brings up many concerns surrounding human rights. Some worry that corrupt and abusive regimes across the world will become emboldened by the BRI, as China does not have the same human rights requirements for its trading partners, like many Western countries do. It is also likely that it will create a lot more silence surrounding Chinese human rights abuses, as China coerces its trading partners into not discussing these matters. For instance, many Arab and Muslim-majority countries have expressed support for China’s actions in Xinjiang, including the mass internment, torture, and extrajudicial killing of an estimated one million Uyghur Muslims. This defies the norm of Muslim solidarity that we’ve seen in Palestine, Kosovo, Myanmar, etc, and cannot be divorced from the fact that China has become the largest investor in the Middle East. 

There is also a fear that China will begin to engage in ‘debt trap diplomacy,’ which is where a country lures underdeveloped countries into borrowing loans for infrastructure development projects, and then leveraging power over them and controlling them if they are unable to pay off their loans on time. A Center for Global Development study found that nine countries are already at serious risk of being unable to repay their loans to China, including Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. When countries are indebted to China, it’s much easier to push them around or demand they take China’s side on a series of international disputes. 

Beyond the speculation and fear that China is on track to dominate the world economic, political, and military systems, the BRI is indicative of a series of other changes happening in the world. It is clear that the world is becoming more multipolarized. Throughout history, the world has largely been under the sway of one hegemon, aside from during the Cold War when it was pulled between two. Today, more countries are gaining power, which has been catalyzed by the BRI. Additionally, for perhaps the first time in modern history, the most powerful states in the world are not in the West. The world is becoming more in the control of the non-Western world, countries who were once colonized and dominated by the West. The BRI, which is creating a chain of countries across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, is spearheading this shift.

Dorothy Settles

Dorothy is the co-founder and former executive director of Spheres of Influence. Her work focuses on social movements, climate change, and conflict across Turtle Island and Southeast Asia. Originally from...

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