The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) marks an inflexion point in China’s foreign policy. By ‘building capabilities’ and ‘striking some successes’ (yousuo zuowei), the initiative builds on previous Chinese doctrines. However, the BRI also represents an unprecedented challenge to the established regional order. It has the potential to reshape the economic system and alter the balance of power in greater Asia. As such, the BRI paves the way for China’s ascendancy, at the expense of the United States and regional powers.
The BRI’s strategic implications will gradually materialize as China implements the initiative. In the short term, the Chinese leadership is likely to focus on projects that have high economic benefits and a low strategic value. Such an emphasis will help build regional acceptance for the initiative and encourage the United States to support some BRI projects. However, the Trump administration is likely to oppose endeavours that undermine its interests or those of its allies. They include projects that facilitate China’s military advance in the Indian Ocean and those that strategically empower Russia and Iran.
- Russia will continue to cautiously embrace the BRI, despite the initiative being detrimental to its influence in Central Asia;
- India and Japan could expand on the ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’ to promote a joint, alternative vision for Asian connectivity;
- The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will steer clear of BRI projects that are dual-use or located in disputed territories.
The BRI is a novel strategic framework whose development was posterior to most of the initiatives and projects it underpins. As such, it is essentially a re-structuring exercise that serves two purposes:
- enhance internal policy coordination across China’s multiple levels and branches of government; and
- provide an overarching narrative for China’s economic and foreign policy endeavors in greater Asia. The positive BRI ‘brand’ aims to advance China’s soft power while downplaying its hard power build-up.
Nevertheless, the BRI also constitutes a framework for action. It provides China with the instruments to achieve long-standing strategic goals and more recent economic ones.
The BRI is driven by two rationales:
- economic: sustain China’s economic growth by supporting regional demand for Chinese goods, services, and capital;
- strategic: achieve regional dominance by gradually improving China’s geoeconomic and geopolitical positions.
These motives are mutually reinforcing: China’s larger economic size strengthens its regional influence. They are also often intertwined at the operational level. For instance, the 50 billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) serves dual economic and strategic purposes.
At the same time, China must arbitrate on these competing objectives. Projects whose strategic value makes up for a dearth of economic viability come at the expense of those that can have a more transformative economic impact or that have higher potential returns. Which of these objectives takes priority remains uncertain and is likely to evolve with time and across countries.
Regardless of the ultimate intent of the Chinese leadership, the BRI has far-reaching implications for the balance of power in greater Asia.
The BRI’s vision is that of new regional economic order with China at the crossroads of trade and investment fluxes. Such a model will enable China to deepen and expand its regional leadership as well as increase its leverage on recipient and transit countries.
The BRI provides for regional economic integration on Chinese terms. The development of hard connectivity infrastructure will create greater interdependence between Asian economies. The closer bilateral economic relationships will be, at least in strategic terms, to the relative advantage of China, the significantly bigger partner.
In addition, the BRI enables China to leverage its economic weight to set regional norms and standards. It can do so via top-down initiatives such as the BRI-related Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or in a bottom-up approach via the large number of BRI infrastructure projects designed and built by Chinese companies.
Finally, the BRI consolidates China’s position as one of the main providers of bilateral finance in Asia. China’s ability to set lending rates and conditions provides the possibility of extracting non-financial concessions, especially from recipient countries whose debt has become unsustainable. The lopsided creditor-to-debtor relationship also allows China to control the entire project cycle from conception to execution.
The BRI will help China maintain stability in the periphery, secure transit routes, and enhance power projection capabilities.
The BRI’s avowed focus on economic development will support the conditions for social stability and political permanence in China’s Western provinces and in recipient countries.
The initiative will also enable China to mitigate its strategic vulnerabilities, first of which is its overreliance on the Strait of Malacca for the transit of critical supplies such as hydrocarbon. The development of overland transport corridors will provide alternative transit routes, including the new Myanmar-China and the planned Pakistan-China oil pipelines.
Furthermore, the BRI will strengthen China’s defensive and offensive military capabilities. The Indian Ocean, where Chinese-built port facilities are effectively consolidating the so-called ‘String of Pearls’ network, is a case in point. CPEC’s Gwadar port might eventually become a Chinese naval base. Similarly, the construction and modernization of highways and railways in China’s neighborhood can facilitate the rapid deployment of Chinese troops.
Overall, the BRI has potential to dramatically improve China’s relative geostrategic position in greater Asia. It can also empower other regional powers such as Russia and Iran, which are the geographic anchors of the New Eurasian Land Bridge and the China-Central Asia & West Asia Economic Corridor, respectively.
In addition to creating potential for Chinese interventionism, the BRI increases the risks for strategic entrapment.
BRI projects that involve Chinese workers or ownership have been the target of terrorist attacks, most recently in Balochistan. Such events, and the need to secure long transit routes and strategic assets might prove triggers for direct Chinese armed intervention.
The BRI’s multifaceted nature complicates the response of the United States, which has so far been muted. The Trump administration is reluctant to embrace the initiative for fear of strategically empowering China. However, it is wary that frontal opposition would jeopardize regional economic development and thereby be equally detrimental to American interests in the region.
The U.S. response will likely be measured and selective. It could be determined by a cost-benefits analysis of BRI components that would assess whether the gains in terms of economic development offset the relative strategic loss of the United States and its regional allies.
The United States is likely to:
- participate in, or at least tacitly support, projects that align with its strategic interests or, at the minimum, that do not undermine them;
- engage with China and recipient countries on the projects with significant mutual economic benefits and whose detrimental effect on U.S. interest can be mitigated;
- oppose and impede projects that undermine critical U.S. interest.
Such an approach would result in the United States supporting some corridors while mitigating or resisting others (see map).
This is an electronic, unedited version of an article published in the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief