Chinese President Xi Jinping leaves a news conference at the end of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in 2017. Credit - Jason Lee—Pool/AP
Ten years after a freshly inaugurated President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative, China is gearing up to celebrate the decade anniversary of what has been called the “most ambitious” geopolitical project of the century. The sweeping initiative, initially introduced as the “Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road Development Strategy” in September and October 2013, promised to boost connectivity, trade, and cultural exchange along routes loosely inspired by the ancient Silk Road—no small task.
But dig a little deeper beyond the headlines, and the numbers start to get strange. Why can no-one agree on total spending? And where are the official Chinese figures? Why isn’t there even an officially agreed-upon list of BRI countries?
None of this is to say the BRI hasn’t been impactful. Chinese projects have, by some metrics, poured more than $1 trillion into addressing global infrastructure gaps faster and with less bureaucracy than their western counterparts, built up invaluable overseas experience for Chinese firms and banks, and provided an undisputable wake-up call on the scale of Chinese ambitions.
And yet, 10 years on, it remains impossible to pin down exactly what constitutes the BRI.
That’s in large part because the BRI was never quite what observers thought it was. In fact, the BRI is more branding exercise than masterplan—a fragmented and often inexperienced range of actors, juggling commercial and political incentives.
As Xi called for China to “release the growth potential of various countries,” everyone from gargantuan state-owned enterprises to plucky private companies jumped on the BRI bandwagon. Pre-existing projects were proudly rebranded as BRI ventures—even though, in many African countries like Angola and Ethiopia, lending from Chinese companies had already peaked before the Chinese government caught up with the flow of capital and signed official BRI memorandums of understanding in 2018. BRI branding thus became a shortcut to unlocking financing, while no official definition of a BRI project ever emerged. Both at home and abroad, then, the BRI must surely go down as one of this century’s most successful policy branding exercises.
But of course, the wide variety of Chinese spending has also come with downsides. In some cases, inexperienced or unaccountable Chinese companies have caused environmental damage; in others, China’s “whole industry chain export” model—in which everything from feasibility studies to post-completion maintenance are provided by Chinese contractors—has limited economic benefits and skills-transfer in local communities. And, while largely debunked, the idea of “debt-trap diplomacy” in which China lures poor countries into unsustainable debt still dominates in U.S. and European conversations.
All this means that, both practically and politically, Beijing can’t afford the next 10 years of the BRI to look the same. The first problem is there’s just less cash to go about. As a post-COVID economic slump dampens business confidence in China, there’s no longer the opportunity to channel excess capacity and capital into projects abroad. And then there’s the reputational risk: as China increasingly pitches itself as a champion of the Global South, poorly thought-out BRI projects run counter to the overall national interest.
The advantage of being a brand, however, is that there’s an inherent flexibility to the BRI. Going forward, quality not quantity will be the steer—or, in Chinese policy speak: “Small is beautiful.” But making the BRI leaner isn’t enough on its own to set China up for a new era of global outreach.
Enter three new flagship initiatives: the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative, which together aim to add some conceptual backbone to a more globally engaged China.
If the BRI was initially about economics first and geopolitics second, these three initiatives seem to have flipped the equation. Each, far more centrally controlled than the BRI, aims to share China's development, security, and cultural prowess with the world, and, perhaps more importantly, build consensus on China’s preferred norms in the process.
The Global Development Initiative, for example, sits within the United Nations and is dedicating billions to helping developing countries meet the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. In the process, it aims to help cement an alternative understanding of development that focuses on economic security first, civil and political rights second.
The Global Security Initiative, while light on specifics for now, similarly aims to bring countries on board with Beijing’s vision of a security landscape governed by the principle of mutual non-interference.
And the Global Civilization Initiative, the newest of the three, will “advocate respect for the diversity of civilizations”—pushing back against the idea of “universal values” that Beijing sees as fundamentally western.
If these all sound vague, that’s by design. Chinese policy initiatives tend to come slogan first—just like the BRI 10 years ago. But the trio of initiatives took pride of place, ahead of the BRI, in Xi’s all-important work report at last year’s Party Congress, a clear sign to China’s ultra-responsive policy apparatus to get focused on fleshing them out.
Together, the GDI, GSI, and GCI speak to a newfound confidence that China’s model has something to offer the world, but also a growing anxiety that the West, or at least the U.S., could be turning irrevocably hostile to China.
As in the early days of BRI, we’re likely to see a learning process as China ventures into areas beyond its traditional remit. And much like before, there will surely be missteps along the way. But as China starts taking diplomatic deals over the line between Iran and Saudi Arabia, providing training in China to thousands of African law enforcement officials, and running human resources courses for more than 50 countries, it’s clear that China is serious about evolving the ways it engages with the world.
So it’s worth taking the confusion of the past decade of BRI as a cautionary tale. The political and institutional groundwork is being laid to ensure the three new global initiatives will be a core part of China’s diplomatic framework over the next decade. The BRI was misunderstood for far too long—when it comes to positioning themselves for a new era of Chinese foreign policy, countries shouldn’t make the same mistake again.
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