Demystifying Belt and Road

The Struggle to Define China’s “Project of the Century”

At the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, April 2019 Jason Lee / Reuters

In May 2017, Beijing hosted the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.  The summit, which gathered representatives of more than 100 countries, had been organized to promote Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious vision to expand Beijing’s investment and trade ties with some 65 other countries that collectively cover two-thirds of the world’s population. In his keynote speech at the summit, Xi hailed BRI as “the project of the century.”

“What we hope to create,” he said, “is a big family of harmonious coexistence.”

Yet the effects of BRI have been anything but harmonious. Chinese-backed railway projects in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand have stalled, as Beijing’s partner governments have complained about excessive costs, corruption, and what Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad has termed “a new version of colonialism.” Analysts have criticized Beijing for practicing “debt-trap diplomacy”—using BRI as cover to extend astronomical loans that will leave its partners beholden to Chinese interests. American diplomats routinely accuse Beijing of “predatory lending,” and last October, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to BRI as a Chinese attempt to buy an “empire.”

There is one problem with the current hysteria surrounding BRI: nobody, including in Beijing, knows what BRI really is. In his 2017 keynote, Xi described “the project of the century” as encompassing nearly everything: finance, infrastructure, innovation, trade, transportation, sustainability, and people-to-people connectivity. The Chinese government has never provided an official definition of what constitutes a BRI project, nor has it issued a list of approved BRI participants. As a result, Chinese interest groups of all stripes—local governments, state-owned corporations, private enterprises, universities, and even charities and nongovernmental organizations—have been able to claim that their pet projects are a part of BRI, whether or not they have official government support. BRI may be the most talked about and least defined buzzword of this decade.

China is currently attempting to revamp and rebrand BRI in response

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