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

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