The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known within China as the One Belt One Road (OBOR), is an ambitious global infrastructure development strategy spearheaded by China. Introduced by President Xi Jinping, this vision aims to connect China’s less-developed border regions with neighboring countries through extensive infrastructure projects. The initiative intends to stretch globally, playing a pivotal role in building trade routes with strategic control between China and nations in Asia, Africa, and Europe. More than just physical infrastructure, the BRI seeks to promote economic integration, boost the domestic economic viability of potential trade partners, and establish China as a central player in global trade and investment.
There are diverse perceptions of the initiative internationally. Some view it as China’s strategic move to gain economic control, while others see it as an opportunity to boost their economic growth and development. Regardless of perspectives, the BRI has undeniably been a transformative factor in the global economic landscape.
The BRI draws inspiration from the historical Silk Road – a network of trade routes that once connected the East to the West. The modern initiative comprises two primary components: Envisaging a series of land-based infrastructure projects, including railways, roads, and pipelines, this ‘belt’ aims to link China with Europe, passing through Central Asia and the Middle East. A maritime route connecting China’s coastal regions with the African coasts, passing through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Together, these initiatives hope to create a vast interconnected network that boosts trade, investment, and cultural exchange.
The objectives seek to open up new trade routes, fostering economic growth both domestically and in participating countries. China’s industrial sector, especially steel and cement, has significant overcapacity. Infrastructure projects abroad can utilize this excess, benefiting the Chinese economy. With infrastructure investments in various countries, China aims to establish itself as a dominant player in global affairs, furthering its geopolitical and economic influence. Improving transportation networks in the region can lead to better connectivity, which in turn can spur regional economic development.
According to several economic analyses, the BRI significantly contributes to the world economy. Its scope encompasses over 130 countries, impacting 4.4 billion people and approximately one-third of the world’s GDP. The investment figures are staggering, with estimates ranging from $1 trillion to $8 trillion. The sheer scale of the BRI means that its economic ripples are felt globally.
A core facet of the BRI’s economic impact lies in infrastructure development. For countries with underdeveloped infrastructure, BRI projects are a boon, bridging gaps in transport, energy, and technology sectors. This has multiplier effects: improved infrastructure can lead to increased trade, tourism, investment, and overall economic activity.
The BRI places a significant focus on establishing Economic Corridors, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor. These corridors aim to promote regional connectivity and amplify development in member states.
Trade is at the heart of the BRI. By creating an expansive network of interconnected nations, the initiative seeks to foster an environment conducive to easier and faster trade. The economic implications of this are profound. For example, certain BRI corridor economies can see real incomes spike twice to four times if trade restrictions are minimized and facilitation is enhanced. In addition, the initiative’s thrust on reducing trade costs, particularly in landlocked nations, can significantly broaden market access. This, combined with improved trade logistics, can potentially transform economic landscapes, especially for smaller economies.
While the BRI presents a myriad of economic opportunities, it is not without criticism. The ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ narrative suggests that China uses the BRI to saddle countries with unmanageable debts, thereby gaining undue political leverage. Critics argue that the high costs of some BRI projects, coupled with their questionable economic viability, could plunge recipient countries into financial crises. Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port serves as a cautionary tale. Unable to repay Chinese loans to fund the port’s development, Sri Lanka leased the port back to China for 99 years, sparking concerns about China’s increasing geopolitical influence in the region.
Beyond infrastructural development, the BRI also influences global trade dynamics. By providing an alternative to existing trade routes, it can potentially shift global trade hubs and reshape supply chains. This has broad economic implications, with some experts suggesting that BRI-participating economies could see a substantial surge in their global trade shares. Furthermore, the BRI has spurred discussions on trade agreements and partnerships, with countries keen on leveraging the enhanced connectivity to secure favorable trade terms.
Chinese Investments in BRI Countries 2013-21
BRI has a measurable impact of digital and technological advancements on the sustainable economic growth of the 21 BRI countries. The investment in infrastructure extends beyond physical structures, encompassing digital highways, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure, and other innovative solutions. Enhanced connectivity, both digitally and physically, invariably leads to a surge in trade and commerce, thus propelling economic growth.
A core principle of the BRI is the commitment to sustainable development. One aspect of this commitment is the investment in green technologies. The emphasis on sustainable infrastructure aims not only at economic advancement but also at ensuring that growth is not achieved at the environmental cost. Green tech innovations span various sectors, from renewable energy sources to eco-friendly construction materials and practices.
Another direct consequence of technological investments under BRI is the enhanced public health infrastructure. There is a noted increase in public health expenditure among belt-road countries, suggesting prioritization of healthcare as a cornerstone of holistic growth.
China’s digital forays along the BRI path are poised to establish future global tech benchmarks. Advanced ICT connectivity fosters collaboration, particularly in the China-Central Asia corridor. By laying down this digital blueprint, China is not just influencing technological directions but also positioning itself as a critical influencer in global tech standards. Beyond just economic and infrastructural benefits, the BRI also serves as a mechanism for China to position itself centrally in the global supply chain, gaining technological dominance. By establishing the framework and infrastructure, China can guide the direction of tech developments and control pivotal nodes in global tech supply chains.
While there are several advantages, challenges also loom. Many BRI economies, such as Afghanistan and Laos, currently trade below potential due to inadequate infrastructure and weak policy frameworks. Technology deployment and absorption thus require careful calibration, ensuring that it meets the unique needs and challenges of each member country.
Investment Needs for Renewable Energy in 31 BRI Countries, up to 2030 by Technology
(Source: World Resources Institute)
Regional Investment Needs for Renewable Energy in 31 BRI Countries, up to 2030 by Technology
(Source: World Resources Institute)
One of the principal concerns raised by environmentalists is the potential harm to sensitive ecosystems. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) highlighted that many BRI projects overlap with ecologically sensitive zones. Construction activities in such areas can lead to habitat loss, disturb migratory patterns, and endanger vulnerable species.
The construction of vast infrastructure necessitates large-scale extraction of natural resources. This could exacerbate deforestation, deplete minerals, and strain water resources in regions grappling with scarcity. Infrastructure projects, especially those reliant on fossil fuels, significantly contribute to global carbon emissions. Many BRI projects have been scrutinized for potentially escalating the world’s carbon footprint. Additionally, increased vehicular movement along the BRI corridors might elevate air pollution levels in surrounding areas.
The construction and maintenance of such a vast array of infrastructures generate enormous waste. Without proper waste management practices in place, the ecological balance of participating regions could be jeopardized.
China, as the initiator of the BRI, has an inherent responsibility to address these environmental concerns. Fortunately, several measures are emerging: An emerging environmental governance structure for the BRI aims to ensure that projects adhere to sustainability standards. This architecture includes various organizations and frameworks focusing on environmental impact assessments, sustainable financing, and green technologies. In recent years, there’s been an emphasis on greening the BRI. Efforts are underway to transition to renewable energy sources, promote green transport, and emphasize sustainable urban development. The question that remains is: How green is the BRI? While the transition is nascent, the focus on sustainability is promising. China increasingly collaborates with international bodies to ensure BRI projects adhere to global environmental standards. Partnerships with environmental NGOs, financial institutions, and global think tanks are fostering a holistic approach to sustainable development.
While the BRI offers economic opportunities, its environmental implications cannot be ignored. The initiative is at an inflection point. It can either spiral into an ecological disaster or emerge as a beacon of sustainable development. The crux lies in striking a balance. The emphasis on a Green BRI is a step in the right direction. However, for the initiative to be truly sustainable, environmental considerations must be woven into its very fabric. This means moving beyond compliance and adopting a proactive stance towards environmental conservation.
Moreover, the responsibility doesn’t lie with China alone. Participating countries must also take the mantle of ensuring that BRI projects within their jurisdictions are eco-friendly. A collective effort, marked by transparent governance, rigorous oversight, and community engagement, can ensure that the BRI paves the way for a sustainable future.
The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated a rethinking of global connectivity. Health, digital infrastructure, and sustainable development might play a more prominent role in the BRI’s next phase. The pandemic’s economic repercussions could lead to a more selective and focused approach to BRI projects. With a global emphasis on sustainability, future BRI projects might focus more on renewable energy, sustainable cities, and eco-friendly transportation. The BRI could serve as a platform for collaborative efforts to combat climate change.
Beyond physical infrastructure, the ‘Digital Silk Road’ will promote digital connectivity, including 5G networks, artificial intelligence, and cross-border e-commerce. Issues related to cybersecurity, data privacy, and digital governance will be crucial.
Ultimately, the Belt and Road Initiative, monumental in its scope and vision, presents remarkable opportunities and significant challenges. Its future, however, will not be solely determined by its economic or infrastructural milestones but by its ability to adapt, evolve, and resonate with the aspirations and concerns of the global community. The BRI, at its heart, is not just a network of roads, ports, and railways. It manifests a global vision, one where nations collaborate for shared progress. The controversies surrounding it are not mere roadblocks but signposts, urging introspection and course correction. In a rapidly changing world, the BRI’s true success will be gauged by its resilience, its ability to integrate diverse voices, and its commitment to a sustainable and inclusive future. It’s a journey where the destination is as significant as the path taken, and every twist and turn can lead to newfound wisdom and opportunities. The Belt and Road Initiative is more than an initiative; it’s a testament to humanity’s shared dreams and collective ambitions.
is a member of the Association for Asian Studies (Ann Arbor), of The author is a member of the Association of Extra-European Studies (Pisa) and of the Italian Society of International History (Padua). His current research interests include the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China and Western imperialism in China of the last Qing.