The Belt and Road Initiative at 10: Regional Perspectives on China’s Evolving Approach
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The Belt and Road Initiative at 10: Regional Perspectives on China’s Evolving Approach

China’s flagship overseas infrastructure investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is entering its second decade. As is evident from recently translated Chinese scholarship on the future of the BRI, Chinese experts diagnose major risks, as well as opportunities, for the initiative going forward, including growing skepticism of Beijing’s objectives among host partner countries. Here, regional analysts explore how countries in Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia are conceptualizing the future of the BRI and their involvement in the years ahead.

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Newly translated documents discussed in these analyses include:

  1. The Belt and Road Initiative and China’s Breakthrough of United States Technology Containment – Taking China’s Cooperation with Southeast Asia as an Example by Gao Cheng, professor at the School of International Political Economy at the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Bu Yanjun, PhD student at the School of Political and International Relations at Tongji University, and Xue Lin, PhD student at the School of International Political Economy at the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
  2. The Risks Facing Belt and Road and China’s Choices in the New Situation by Yan Shaojun, director and associate researcher at the Belt and Road Division in the Department of World Economic Studies at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges.
  3. Economic Security Risks in Belt and Road Implementation and Their Control Methods by Wei Xin, assistant professor at the Peking University Institute for Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.

Jump to commentary from:

Manoj Kewalramani | Oyuna Baldakova | Margaret Myers | Oscar Meywa Otele | Cheng-Chwee Kuik

Manoj Kewalramani

Fellow-China Studies and Chairperson, Indo-Pacific Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Freeman Chair in China Studies, CSIS

No official Indian delegation attended the 2023 Belt and Road Forum, which was held in Beijing in October. This has been the pattern since the first forum was held in 2017 to expand cooperation around China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, unlike the past two events, Beijing did not extend an invitation to New Delhi this time around. This offers a glimpse into the state of the bilateral relationship, which has been on a downward spiral since 2017.

On the eve of the first BRI forum in 2017, New Delhi repudiated Beijing for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which it argued violated India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Beijing describes CPEC as “a flagship project of the BRI.” In an uncharacteristically strongly worded statement at the time, India’s Ministry of External Affairs also raised concerns about the lack of transparency, financial unsustainability, ecological impact, and strategic implications of BRI projects. A month later, the two sides were engaged in a 74-day-long standoff along the Doklam plateau. The BRI fiasco was an indicator of fraying political trust, while the standoff would foreshadow greater troubles ahead along the disputed boundary between the two countries.

The official Indian view on the BRI has largely remained unchanged since 2017. If anything, some suspicions have deepened while others appear to have been confirmed. For instance, India was among the first countries to criticize BRI projects on the grounds of transparency and their potential to create an “unsustainable debt burden for communities.” For New Delhi, the concern was that this could result in China making strategic inroads across South Asia. Recent events in Sri Lanka and the Maldives seem to indicate that these concerns were prescient.

Increased financial flows from China, particularly in the form of loans, have resulted in Beijing gradually gaining a say in countries’ domestic politics and strategic choices. Developments in the Maldives over the past two election cycles are a case in point. The ouster of former president Abdulla Yameen in 2018 saw the country tilt away from China and toward India under the new administration of Ibrahim Solih. The pendulum, however, swung in Beijing’s favor again with the election of Mohamed Muizzu in late 2023. Soon after his election, Muizzu would call for the removal of Indian troops from the country, while also signing a new security pact with Beijing and granting port access to a Chinese research vessel.

Contrast this with Sri Lanka’s decision to deny Chinese research vessels port access within the country and forbidding China from operating within its exclusive economic zone. This came amid a shift in the balance of power away from Beijing and toward New Delhi following the ouster of the Rajapaksa brothers. The Rajapaksa regime, which had borrowed heavily from Beijing, collapsed amid widespread protests as the country faced a severe financial crisis, defaulting on external debt and leaving it unable to purchase essentials such as fuel and medicines. New Delhi has subsequently stepped in with assistance of over $4 billion. Talks with Beijing on restructuring debt have not made any significant headway.

In essence, from an Indian perspective, the BRI remains a strategic initiative rather than an economic one. Lending it support, and thereby political legitimacy, therefore, is an unviable proposition. That said, a by-product of the BRI has been that New Delhi has begun to value the strategic importance of connectivity and sought to build new partnerships to counter Beijing’s influence.

Oyuna Baldakova

Lead Researcher for Kazakhstan, DIGISILK project, Digital Humanities Department, King’s College London

The three translated texts analyze the past decade of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) amid the growing strategic competition between the United States and China. Wei Xin and Yan Shaojun provide a general overview of the economic security, geopolitical, and domestic risks facing the BRI’s implementation. Gao Cheng, Xue Lin, and Yanjun Bei examine China’s technological cooperation with Southeast Asia, emphasizing the BRI’s role in overcoming U.S. containment and offering tailored cooperation opportunities in the region.

The first two texts mention Central Asia, among other regions. Wei Xin discusses economic security risks associated with the BRI’s transition from the “layout initiation stage” to the “high-quality development stage.” When discussing global economic barriers, he underscores the challenges faced by developing BRI countries, including trade barriers, industrial transfers, and economic sanctions imposed by Western-dominated systems. Notably, according to the table on tariff barriers between China and BRI countries, Chinese exports of agriculture, mining, printing, chemicals, non-ferrous metals, and electronic equipment to Central Asia face some of the highest tariffs compared to other regions. These tariffs might be a result of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)’s tariff harmonization effort (with two out of five Central Asian states being members) or the countries’ attempts to protect domestic sectors such as agriculture and non-ferrous metals and earn from the imports of Chinese electronics and printing equipment.

Furthermore, Wei Xin stresses the need to explore political, cultural, and social factors of economic security, noting how the constraints imposed by developed nations often render BRI countries passive. Any of China’s actions, therefore, could raise doubts and even lead to political sanctions. Giving an example of China’s cooperation with Central Asia in the energy sector, he notes that it is likely to raise suspicions from others who fear interference with the Eurasian integration process. Here, it is unclear whether Wei Xin implies Russia’s concern with China’s growing engagement with the region, but the author seems to deny the agency of Central Asian states in the cases of both trade tariffs and energy sector cooperation. He then, however, highlights the importance of respecting cultural differences to prevent religious and cultural risks from causing economic losses or political conflicts, especially in Central Asia.

Yan Shaojun also examines the growing risks surrounding the BRI against a backdrop of complex international dynamics. Like Wei Xin, he assesses China’s engagement with Central Asia in the context of its relations with Russia. He observes that Russia was once “strategically skeptical” of the BRI, but also that the Russia-Ukraine “conflict” has prompted closer ties between China and Russia. Despite Russia’s reservations about China’s influence in its traditional sphere, Yan anticipates strategic cooperation between the two nations, albeit accompanied by “strategic precaution.” Additionally, he underscores U.S. efforts to expand the United States’ presence in Central Asia, as evidenced by its updated strategy for the region. Yan stresses the importance of strengthening economic ties with Central Asia to navigate the heightened political risks in the region. Leveraging improved trust between China and Russia and diminished Russian influence in Central Asia, Yan proposes the establishment of a trade and investment network centered around Xinjiang and aligned with the EEU.

Both authors regard the BRI as a strategy to counter U.S. influence across various regions, emphasizing the significance of engaging Russia and the EEU for effective BRI implementation in Central Asia. Similar to the prevailing international narratives about the region, the Central Asian countries are depicted to have little agency and are treated as passive players in the broader geopolitical game.

Margaret Myers

Director, Asia & Latin America Program, Inter-American Dialogue

China’s engagement with Latin America has entered a new phase, marked by a clear shift in focus from the sort of large-scale infrastructure projects once emblematic of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) toward a preference for smaller projects in frontier, innovation-related industries. These priority sectors are frequently labeled “new infrastructure” by China’s leadership and have been upheld at home and abroad as key components of the country’s ever-evolving industrial policy. Importantly, this new “high-quality development stage” has also intensified “games” among major powers, according to Peking University’s Wei Xin, as all seek greater economic security.

In Latin America, Chinese companies are increasingly focused on opportunities in electric vehicles (EVs) and other high-end manufacturing sectors (especially in Mexico and Brazil), information and communications technology (ICT), renewable energy, and urban infrastructure (including electricity transmission). New projects in these sectors are evident across much of the region, though with attention largely focused on the region’s more stable economies. Trade, whether in high-tech components or the minerals and metals that feed high-tech industries, is also on the rise.

For the most part, Latin American nations are welcoming to China’s ventures in these sectors, which governments in the region have themselves upheld as potential drivers of post-pandemic growth. In fact, many EV, energy transition, and ICT projects are co-produced by local and Chinese actors. With interest from both sides, Chinese projects in targeted, “new infrastructure” industries accounted for 58 percent of China’s total investment in Latin America in 2022, and 60 percent of total announced projects.

At the same time, China’s growing presence in sectors of strategic interest in Latin America has generated some pushback in parts of the region. Some policymakers and opinion leaders in Chile have expressed concern about an unhealthy concentration of energy sector assets in the hands of a single foreign actor, for instance. The country’s national economic prosecutor, the Fiscalía Nacional Económica, scrutinized Chinese acquisitions after China Southern Power Grid bought a stake in the energy transmission firm Transelec in 2018 and State Grid, a Chinese power transmission and distribution company, bought energy distributors Chilquinta Energía in 2019 and CGE in 2020. Following the GCE deal, State Grid controls over 57 percent of Chile’s regulated energy distribution.

In Peru, the China Three Gorges company and its subsidiaries have been viewed as attempting oligopolistic behavior, given their large presence in the electricity sector. In 2022, China Yangtze Power, a China Three Gorges subsidiary, announced plans to acquire Luz del Sur, Peru’s largest utility company. The country’s National Institute for the Defense of Free Competition and the Protection of Intellectual Property ultimately approved the deal, but it required Luz del Sur to purchase its electricity through public auctions until 2030 to assure a level playing field for other energy producers in the country.

China’s efforts to “fly under the radar,” so to speak, through smaller projects with limited physical presence would seem the product of lessons learned during the BRI’s articulation over the past 10 years—including a greater overall sensitivity to political and economic risk of the sort that Wei Xin also describes. For their part, Chinese companies are pursuing arbitration and litigation with greater frequency to better protect their expansive interests in the region. Most recently, in a U.S. lawsuit, the China-owned Australis Seafoods claimed that it was defrauded by the company’s previous owners. Claims have also been made against Latin American governments.

In addition to their focus on “new infrastructure,” Chinese investors are still engaged with certain traditional sectors of interest, including those with bearing on China’s own food and energy security. These still account for a significant portion of overall investment, such that China maintains a sizeable presence in extractive industries, transport infrastructure, and other sectors with often-outsized environmental and social impacts. China—and the BRI, by extension—are only de-risking so much, in other words. Meanwhile, local concern about lithium, where China is relatively heavily invested, and other critical metals and minerals projects is mounting.

Oscar Meywa Otele

Lecturer, University of Nairobi
Nonresident Fellow, Global China Hub, Atlantic Council

Since its inception in September 2013, there has been a debate about the possible opportunities and risks of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in developing countries. In Africa, the debate has even gained currency amid reports about the uncertainty of funding the BRI projects in the context of China’s recent economic slowdown. The watershed of this uncertainty was the 2021 Dakar Action Plan, where China did not make any financial commitment to infrastructural development. Although 44 African countries had signed BRI cooperative agreements as of the end of December 2023, the BRI hard infrastructure projects are mostly visible in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and East Africa. This is not surprising, as these regions are hotspots for the twenty-first century Maritime Silk Road that starts from China’s southern coast and covers South Asia, West Asia, and Southern Europe. In Egypt, the first African country to sign a BRI agreement with China, the China-Egypt Suez Economic Zone was established in 2016. The zone serves as a trade, industrial, and logistical hub. As of the end of July 2023, the zone had attracted about 30 industrial firms with a total investment portfolio of $300 million. 1 The completion of 753 km of Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway at a cost of $3.4 billion has increased the flow of goods and services between Ethiopia and Djibouti as well as international trade in the two countries. 2 Some observers have interpreted the establishment of a Chinese military based in Djibouti parallel to American, Japanese, and French outposts as a huge boost to the fight against pirate operations in the Indian Ocean region. Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Nairobi to Mombasa, stretching 472 km at a cost of $3.2 billion, has increased the turnaround of cargo from the coastal city of Mombasa to landlocked countries in the East African region. After a failed attempt to secure funding from the Export–Import Bank of China to extend the SGR, discussions are underway to connect the SGR to the western coast of Africa from Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Congo-Brazzaville. The extension is viewed as likely to open the East Africa region to other parts of the continent for business while at the same time connecting Chinese investors to Africa.     

            As in other parts of the world where the BRI projects have suffered from “poor investment environments, weak ability to repay funds, and incomplete credit systems,” in Africa, some of the projects are regime driven and their prosperity is challenged by unpredictable political transitions. As such the achievement of the BRI’s objective of connectivity in Africa remains in doubt. This is further threatened by the high propensity of China to deal bilaterally with African states keen to safeguard their national interests at the expense of continental integration and connectivity. With the lack of commitment on infrastructure funding, there have been fewer large-scale infrastructure projects and increased interest in low-tech manufacturing and processing projects in Africa. As a result, the realization of the BRI’s vision in Africa is put in doubt.

Cheng-Chwee Kuik

Professor of International Relations, Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, National University of Malaysia
Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Ten years after the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched, China is talking not just development but “high-quality” development (gaozhiliang fazhan). It is not merely talking about infrastructure and connectivity, but also hard- and soft-infrastructure development and cross-infrastructure, cross-boundary connectivity building. While these expanded lexicons may well reflect the expanded scope and scale of BRI statecraft, especially in light of Beijing’s announcement of the Global Development Initiative (GDI) at the United Nations in 2021, there are quiet anxieties: China appears to be thinking about the risks, challenges, and problems as much as, if not more than, the benefits of the BRI.  

Indeed, while Chinese official statements may not often detail the problems and difficulties associated with the BRI, the analysis of “risks” and “risk mitigation” are becoming the central themes of Chinese scholarly and policy work on the BRI in recent years, as reflected by the three articles selected by CSIS’s Interpret: China. Wei Xin’s September 2022 essay analyzes the “economic security risks” and “control methods” in the BRI. Yan Shaojun’s February 2023 piece identifies several “external risks” and numerous “risks and challenges” in the domestic economy, which are “superimposed on and added to the problems existing in the BRI promotion process.” Finally, the September 2023 article by Gao Cheng, Xue Lin, and Bei Yanjue details similar risks and problems, with a focus on those in the technology domains. The last two articles pay particular attention to the Southeast Asian region, with Yan describing the region as “the center of gravity of the BRI,” while Gao et al. depict the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) market as a “frontline battlefield for Chinese 5G technology to go global.”

These articles offer insightful and illuminating accounts of the multiple economic security risks manifested as the BRI enters into the implementation and expansion phases. These risks range from debt crisis and fiscal unsustainability to issues related to the business environment, investment, and macroeconomics. The essays also provide valuable assessments and reflections about the major sources of such risks from Chinese perspectives. However, there are issues and points of contestations. For instance, the authors attribute the external risks largely to the U.S. “containment” strategy against China, with varying degrees of analysis on the impacts of the United States and its partners’ “alternative” schemes for infrastructure connectivity building (e.g., the Blue Dot Network, Build Back Better World, and Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment). Such assertions may have exaggerated the significance of the U.S. factor, neglected host-country agency, and discounted the BRI’s own limitations as an instrument of economic inducement. This is because, with or without the involvement of the United States and its Indo-Pacific partners, some of these risks and limitations already existed. Besides, host-country agency is often a primary factor leading to some of the BRI-related setbacks in the region. Take Southeast Asian states’ responses to 5G technology competition. Vietnam and Singapore’s decisions to exclude Huawei from their respective 5G networks were not a result of U.S. or Western pressures but the states’ own calculations of economy-security trade-offs. In Malaysia, the 2018 decision by the second administration of Mahathir Mohamad to suspend the East Coast Rail Link and two other China-related projects were a function of host-country agency, based on the ruling elites’ own domestic political necessities rather than external influence. Nevertheless, Gao et al. should be commended for choosing three analytically pertinent case studies, each representing a different type of China-backed connectivity-building projects in Southeast Asia: Laos-China Rail and other infrastructure cooperation (hard connectivity), standards for 5G wireless technology (“soft interoperability”), and Malaysia-China industrial parks in Kuantan (“chain through-connectivity”). Their study concludes that Southeast Asia is a crucial site for “breaking through the [US] strategic containment” of Chinese technology and economic statecraft, while providing “a new counter-field” to alleviate the pressure of continuous competition from the United States on multiple fronts. Although their discussion of 5G is flawed (focusing on Indonesia and Thailand but omitting Vietnam and Singapore), the three cases are vivid indicators that, despite the abovementioned risks and challenges and despite the talks about “debt traps” in some mainstream circles, the BRI is slowly but surely leaving footprints on hard and soft connectivity in some parts of Southeast Asia, and potentially beyond.

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