The Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the New Chinese Silk Road, was announced in September 2013, during Xi Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan, and in October of the same year in Indonesia. When he announced his vision, the Chinese president compared this project to the historical Silk Road, which over 2000 years ago led to commercial, political and cultural connections between the West and the East.
The contemporary plan consists of two projects: The Silk Road Economic Belt and six economic corridors – roads and railways that connect China to Central Asia, Russia, South Asia and Europe, and a “Maritime Silk Road”, ports and sea routes that aim to connect the Southeast Asian States and countries bordering India. Together, these two projects constitute the Belt and Road Initiative, a geopolitical and economic initiative that includes, since March 2020, a total of 138 countries. The New Silk Road plans a vast network of railways, motorways, ports, pipelines and communication infrastructure that cover the Eurasian continent. In reality, the five priorities of this project are as follows:
- Policy coordionation;
- Infrastructure connectivity;
- Fostering international trade;
- Financial integration;
- Cultural and people exchange
In order to support this initiative, the Chinese government created the Office of the Leading Group on Promoting the Implementation of Belt and Road Initiatives, with the administration under the National Development and Reform Commission, and in March 2015, Beijing published “The Vision and Actions on Jointly Building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”.
In 2017, the first forum of the Belt and Road Initiative took place. Furthermore, Beijing supported the initiative with a significant financial effort, which took form in $40 billion for the Silk Road Economic Belt, $25 billion for the Maritime Silk Road, $50 billion for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and $40 billion for the new Silk Road Fund.
This is a geopolitical and economic project, having as a foundation China’s aspiration of becoming a global power, and, at the same time, the correcting of internal economic imbalances. Some Chinese SOEs in the steel, concrete and construction sectors accumulated excess capacity after the financial crisis of 2008, thanks to a financial stimulus by Beijing, since its economy was in pronounced growth. Meanwhile, with the slowing of growth, these companies find themselves in a position where productive capacity is superior to utilization, trying to find alternative uses for their resources. In the same trend, China also has the largest reserve of foreign currency in the world, and it is not being invested productively. Thus, investing in infrastructure projects of large size would allow China to export its excess savings and to place its SOE to work, once again.
Adding to that, the fact is that for the Chinese economic development to continue, it’s essential to ensure access to energy resources. Through this initiative, China may increase its access to energy infrastructures, through Central Asia, and guarantee it through alternative routes, since Chinese energy security is largely vulnerable due to its excessive dependence on a sea route that crosses the strait of Malacca. There are two clear threats in terms of the external dependence on this route: the threat of piracy and maritime terrorism, which despite the efforts to combat it, still remains a problem, and the influence that other states have in the Southeast Asia region and its surrounding routes, namely the US and Japan.
Simultaneously, China is also interested in deepening its economic ties with its western provinces, which, historically, have been receiving less attention and benefited less than their eastern counterparts from the Chinese economic development. Thus, to promote it in the western province of Xinjiang, where separatist violence is more pronounced, is a priority. Lastly, another economic aspect of this initiative relates to the attempt to make the renminbi a reserve currency in the international monetary system.
The China-Pakistan economic corridor is the most promising, having been branded as the flagship project of the New Chinese Silk Road, being the most expansive investment package to be put into effect. The numbers put forth by Pakistan, right after the initiative was launched in 2015, pointed to investments worth $46 billion. This corridor includes energy projects, roads and railways, development of infrastructure and industrial parks. It also connects the region of Xinjiang to the deepwater port of Gwadar, located in the far southwest of the Pakistan coast, close to the border with Iran and the Arabian Sea. The true strategic importance of this port resides in the fact that it is located very close to the Strait of Hormuz, the ocean-way between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. It’s estimated that 20% of the oil shipments in the world go through the Strait of Hormuz. This port will allow China to utilize alternative routes for the supply of energy, without having to cross the choke points in Southeast Asia. Although it is the most promising project of the initiative, it removes from the equation the participation of countries that could be crucial for the success of the new Silk Road, such as India. Since the China-Pakistan economic corridor crosses disputed regions between India and Pakistan, such as Baluchistan, in reply to a consultation over the participation of India in the One Belt, One Road Forum, an official spokesman for the Indian government stated that “no country may accept a project that ignores the concept of sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
There is, however, another aspect to consider, which many analysts claim is a way for China to gain geopolitical advantages over other countries: the so called “debt-trap diplomacy”, which consists in attracting poor and developing countries by granting them unsustainable loans, with the purpose of building infrastructure projects, so that, when these countries face financial difficulties, Beijing may claim the project, extending its military reach. This Question will be analyzed in greater detail in following articles, taking into account specific case studies.
Thus, it becomes evident that, although the Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious project, which matches Beijing’s capital, it also faces several obstacles to its completion. For starters, the project that would have the highest chance of being successful, the China-Pakistan economic corridor, finds itself under great vulnerabilities on security issues, besides putting a dent on India’s participation in the project. Additionally, in the Southeast Asian context, the disputes in the South China Sea, in particular with Vietname and the Philippines, affected bilateral negotiations with these countries, and its expected that tensions in the region may increase, given Xi Jinping’s more assertive foreign policy. One of the only regional powers that finds itself fully committed to the initiative at present is Russia. Although with a cautious initial reaction, due to the fact that China gave a bigger emphasis to the region that, traditionally, is under the Russian sphere of influence, Central Asia, Russia’s vision evolved, in particular due to the larger isolation of the country and the sanctions imposed by the west. China finds itself, however, in a difficult phase of implementation of the project, in part due to the global pandemic situation, and the difficulty in attracting essential countries for the project, as well as keeping watch over its interests.