China will strengthen risk prevention and control in its giant Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure project linking the country to the rest of the world. The state media quoted President Xi Jinping as saying on Friday.
The Belt and Road concept is the real and fundamental indicator of China as a great global economic and military power.
The Chinese constitution included the One Belt One Road concept — Xi’s trademark geo-economic concept that is now used to explain almost every move that China makes outside its borders. The “Belt and Road” concept has become so important, that it is very helpful in understanding anything about China’s relationship with the outside world.
The Belt and Road initiatives have a big essence for global politics. In his initial presentation on the idea, President Xi has clear goals, unless one counts: “to forge closer economic ties, deepen cooperation and expand development space in the Eurasian region” or “vigorously enhance practical cooperation and be good partners of win-win cooperation.” The same was true of Xi’s later speeches on the subject, including at the inaugural Belt and Road summit. One could search through the policy documents issued by the National Development and Reforms Commission, but usually the actual ministry resorts to the “win-win” formulation each time it approached the question of The Belt and Road Concept.
Many analysts produce their own theories on what exactly China has in mind with the Belt and Road concept. Some explanations point to geostrategic rationales. According to this school of thought, China, embattled by conflict with its neighbours in the South China Sea and contained by the U.S. and its allies in Northeast Asia, looked for “strategic space” in the West and will try to establish its dominance over continental Eurasia. A more nuanced variant of this approach links to Xi Jinping’s ideas about “periphery diplomacy” through which China seeks to improve relationships with its neighbours by providing them with economic development. Yet another school of thought would frame the Belt and Road conception as the Chinese version of the Bretton Woods institutions — the World Bank, IMF and the WTO — developed to shape the international economic order in accordance with Beijing’s economic interests and financial preferences. Some scholars point to Chinese domestic economic needs, highlighting the necessity to export China’s industrial overcapacity or support infrastructure-building that will help to generate employment. There is no shortage of scholars linking the origins of the Belt and Road concept to the project of Developing the West, particularly the west of China. Finally, a popular explanation is a logistical one: China wants to tap into the potentially faster continental routes to Europe by upgrading infrastructure in Eurasia and thereby also avoiding sea lanes controlled by the U.S. Navy.
These and many other theories about China’s strategic rationales behind the Belt and Road are based on Chinese sources and interviews with Chinese scholars, officials and businesspeople. The spectrum of theories reflects not only the diverse backgrounds and research priorities of scholars outside of China looking at Belt and Road but also the wide range of opinions and approaches toward this initiative taken within China. Since Xi proclaimed this idea, nearly every university, ministry, region in China has held at least one event dedicated to this way. Newly established think tanks in China, dedicated to studying this issue, already number in the hundreds. At the same time, most Chinese officials and analysts who advise Beijing would acknowledge in private conversations, that the top leadership has given them much positive direction about Belt and Road.
However, the Belt and Road does not have a timeframe. No timeframe is to be found in the speeches of Xi Jinping and other officials, or in documents and roadmaps published by the Chinese government. Most of the time, when confronted directly over the timeline issue, Chinese officials and experts say that Belt and Road is a long-term goal that does not have an underlying set of deadlines. Interestingly enough, not only does Belt and Road stretch into the indefinite future, it also reaches into the past. Some of China’s old projects, like the construction of Gwadar Port in Pakistan, which began in 2002, are now listed among the Belt and Road’s flagship achievements. This approach allows Beijing to re-package old deals and projects and present them to the world as Belt and Road deliverables.
Finally, China’s current and prospective partners may find this uncertainty and lack of focus problematic. But for the Chinese political system, this lack of clarity around Belt and Road is actually a good thing. After all, the lack of performance criteria gives the government more latitude to declare positive outcomes and address the desire of all governments but, perhaps especially important to China, is the ability to appear successful, victorious and influential on the global stage.