While the eyes of the world focus on China’s aggression in the seas to its east, China’s leaders are looking west. At the end of March, China’s National Development and Reform Commission joined its ministries of foreign affairs and commerce to release an expansive blueprint for what it calls the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road—often shortened to “One Belt, One Road.” If successful, the ambitious program would make China a principal economic and diplomatic force in Eurasian integration. One Belt, One Road calls for increased diplomatic coordination, standardized and linked trade facilities, free trade zones and other trade facilitation policies, financial integration promoting the renminbi, and people-to-people cultural education programs throughout nations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Some have characterized it as China’s Marshall Plan, but Chinese leaders reject the comparison. As they see it, what they are doing is integrating Eurasia rather than drawing dividing lines, and focusing on economic growth rather than political influence. Yet therein lies the danger; if China does not skillfully balance investments and diplomacy with its search for political influence, it may find itself tangled in conflicts for which it is not prepared.

ON THE ROAD

Although the exact details of One Belt, One Road vary by map to map and proposal to proposal, generally, the overland belt, comprising roads, rail links, energy pipelines, and telecommunications ties, seeks to link China, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Russia. The maritime “road” will sail from China’s coasts through the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea (through the Suez Canal), with stops in Africa along the way. One Belt, One Road builds on earlier calls by Chinese academics to march West as a response to the United States’ strategic pivot to Asia. The name of Beijing’s dual programs harken back even further, to the ancient Silk Road, recalling China’s historical role in trade promotion between Asia and Europe. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping officially announced the “belt” in a September 2013 speech in Kazakhstan and the “road” during an October speech in Indonesia that same year. Funding will draw from the controversial $50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the $40 billion New Silk Road Fund, and the New Development Bank initiative between BRICS nations. China’s leaders calculate that the programs will touch 4.4 billion people in more than 65 countries, and that annual trade with participant nations could climb to $2.5 trillion within a decade. An editorial in the South China Morning Post called it “the most significant and far-reaching project the nation has ever put forward.”

The One Belt, One Road strategy advances a number of China’s domestic goals that align with Xi’s “China Dream” of national rejuvenation. First among them is bolstering the Chinese economy by providing an outlet for excess industrial capacity. As Beijing tries to cool an overheated domestic infrastructure sector without creating massive unemployment, plans that channel investment-led growth beyond China will be key. Inside China’s borders, the plans focus on China’s relatively underdeveloped western and southern regions, which will help accelerate growth and boost employment there, moves which leaders hope will tamp down ethnic unrest in addition to providing jobs and an outlet for the nation’s workforce. Outside of its borders, China seeks to benefit from trade and currency swaps—reinforcing the international power of the renminbi as a global trade currency. Securing energy deals will help ensure unimpeded supplies as China’s energy demand continues to rise; land-based energy infrastructure specifically can help ease a crippling reliance on sea-borne shipments. With growth in developed economies still sluggish, China sees Asia’s developing economies as sources of growth on its doorstep.

One Belt, One Road serves foreign policy goals as well by deepening relationships with China’s neighbors. The dual plans will also expand Beijing’s ties to major developing countries, and build support for a reshaped international system that puts China at the center of world power. China’s growth has prompted the nation to reluctantly embrace its foreign policy obligations, and the trade program will allow Xi to pursue his “community of common destiny” program, a vision for shared Asian growth in the coming decades. Strengthened bilateral ties with nations along the dual trade routes will support China’s ambitions to build a network of non-Western international organizations in which China plays the main, if not dominant, role. Organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia would allow China to pursue international diplomatic primacy outside of Beijing’s relationship with Washington. 

A man looks at the Pudong financial district of Shanghai November 20, 2013.
A man looks at the Pudong financial district of Shanghai November 20, 2013. With a shift in tone and language, China's central bank governor has dangled the prospect of speeding up currency reform and giving markets more room to set the yuan's exchange rate as he underlines broader plans for sweeping economic change.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

ROAD BLOCKS 

One Belt, One Road seems to be gaining momentum since Xi first introduced it. The plans have strong financial backing, particularly through China’s vaunted AIIB, and the support of China’s political and economic elites. But huge stumbling blocks still remain, and could challenge China’s ability to realize its ambitions. While efforts to fill Asia’s infrastructure gap—estimated at $8 trillion through 2020—are welcome, lax lending standards could undermine progress. Should nations use the funding to pursue illogical or unfeasible development projects related to One Belt, One Road, Chinese investments will suffer as debtors struggle to pay back loans. In addition, projects that come with unexpected environmental or human rights scandals could dampen China’s perception as a benign actor on the global stage. In the maritime sphere, although Chinese efforts to upgrade port infrastructure along the route and proposed free trade zones can add trade capacity for participating nations, it is not yet clear how the maritime road will supplement existing shipping lines.

Further, although Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has stated that One Belt, One Road is “not a tool of geopolitics,” China will likely attempt to turn economic cooperation into political influence. Doing so will require Beijing to overcome a number of difficult obstacles, primarily, managing great power competition with India, Russia, and the United States within Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Russia’s efforts to create a Eurasian Union, linking former Soviet states through economic cooperation, poses direct competition to China’s own integration strategy, even though Chinese–Russian relations are on the mend. India would have reservations about Chinese regional aspirations as well, since Beijing’s programs could hinder its own “Act East” and “Connect Central Asia” policies. Chinese maritime expansion into the Indian Ocean—especially within ports that could serve as staging grounds for Chinese naval operations—only adds to India’s unease. Although the United States’ involvement in Central Asia is waning as its role in Afghanistan winds down, Chinese involvement across Eurasia, the Indian Ocean, and the Middle East will test Beijing’s ability to balancing competition with cooperation—working with, rather than against, neighbors and global political powers. 

The success of One Belt, One Road projects will depend on the cooperation of capricious regional and local leaders. Many leaders, especially in Central Asia and the Middle East, draw from centuries of experience playing foreign powers off one another to gain personal political and financial advantage. Amid intensifying sectarian conflict in the Middle East, for example, Chinese leaders are likely to find it increasingly difficult to balance China’s longstanding ties with Iran and burgeoning relations with Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia. Sri Lanka’s recent decision to review more than two-dozen projects with Chinese backing provides another case in point. Challenges posed by non-state actors layer on additional political risks that China is unaccustomed to handling. The Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State (also called ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen all threaten Chinese investments and key transit points along proposed trade routes. 

One Belt, One Road could stretch China’s foreign policy doctrines and capabilities to a breaking point. China’s rhetoric about win–win outcomes, consensus-driven decision-making, and avoiding interference will bump up against the hard realities of protecting Chinese citizens and investments. China’s peacekeeping experience in Sudan provides a preview of how the nation might pursue future intervention, if required to protect its financial interests. China’s desire to avoid intervention in Sudan ran aground when the country began to break apart, threatening China’s oil investments and forcing Beijing to step in as diplomatic mediator and deploy peacekeeping troops. If Chinese actions go beyond the basic protection of its investments into broader geopolitical actions, international perception of China’s future foreign interventions could give credence to suspicions of Beijing’s imperialistic desires. Such a dynamic has characterized China’s relations in the East and South China Seas in recent years; a westward corollary is not hard to imagine.

A laborer looks at his phone as he takes a break from work at a shipyard in Yueqing City, Zhejiang Province March 27, 2012.
A laborer looks at his phone as he takes a break from work at a shipyard in Yueqing City, Zhejiang Province March 27, 2012.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

At the operational level, China’s sprawling global interests could create new responsibilities for a growing, yet inexperienced, military. Beijing’s recent mission to help evacuate Chinese nationals from Yemen marked an important milestone for the nation: the first successful military action to evacuate Chinese citizens and other foreign nationals from a crisis. As recently as 2011, the People’s Liberation Army lacked the capabilities to carry out a similar operation in Libya. Diplomatically, efforts to play mediator with the Taliban in Afghanistan by hosting a dialogue summit, and its efforts to aid the Israeli–Palestinian dialogue through a five-point peace program outline China’s ambitions as a global problem-solver. These efforts, so far, have struggled to go beyond symbolism, as the nation has yet to gain a true diplomatic win on any of the issues in which it has intervened. Across all measures of foreign policy, China is likely to find itself facing a paradox: In seeking out strategic depth to its West, China could instead be spreading itself too thin too early, being drawn into conflicts and responsibilities with burdens it is not ready to shoulder.

Translating the One Belt, One Road initiative from an ambitious cartographic formulation with a historical hook into a workable strategy for economic diplomacy and perhaps geopolitical influence will test China’s capabilities across all aspects of foreign policy. The march westward could be a long one indeed.

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  • JACOB STOKES is the Bacevich Fellow in the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security.
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