How Will the Belt and Road Initiative Advance China’s Interests?

Announced in 2013, the belt and road asean, also known as One Belt, One Road) aims to strengthen China’s connectivity with the world. It combines new and old projects, covers an expansive geographic scope, and includes efforts to strengthen hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure, and cultural ties. As of October 2019, the plan touches 138 countries with a combined Gross Domestic Product of $29 trillion and some 4.6 billion people.

Unpacking the Belt and Road Initiative

Supporting a diverse array of initiatives that enhance connectivity throughout Eurasia and beyond could serve to strengthen China’s economic and security interests while bolstering overseas development. At the first Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2017, President Xi Jinping noted that, “In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we should focus on the fundamental issue of development, release the growth potential of various countries and achieve economic integration and interconnected development and deliver benefits to all.”

The BRI is an umbrella initiative spanning a multitude of projects designed to promote the flow of goods, investment, and people. The new connections fostered by the BRI could reconfigure relationships, reroute economic activity, and shift power within and between states. In March 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs disseminated an action plan (issued by the National Development and Reform Commission) that fleshed out specific policy goals of the BRI. These included:

  • Improving intergovernmental communication to better align high-level government policies like economic development strategies and plans for regional cooperation.
  • Strengthening the coordination of infrastructure plans to better connect hard infrastructure networks like transportation systems and power grids.
  • Encouraging the development of soft infrastructure such as the signing of trade deals, aligning of regulatory standards, and improving financial integration.
  • Bolstering people-to-people connections by cultivating student, expert, and cultural exchanges and tourism.

Beneficiary countries are likely to find the most attractive elements of the BRI to be its provision of hard infrastructure. Likewise, the BRI provides China with an opportunity to use its considerable economic means to finance these infrastructure projects around the world. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that the developing countries of Asia collectively will require $26 trillion in infrastructure investment to sustain growth.

Leveraging these needs against its economic strength may ultimately garner China significant political gains. Notably, many of the areas targeted by China suffer from underinvestment due to domestic economic struggles, and they often register low on the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI). Myanmar and Pakistan – two countries heavily targeted by the BRI – rank 148th and 150th globally in terms of HDI.

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