Carl Michael, a member of our Emerging Fellows program initiates publishing a series of blog posts aimed at envisioning the long-term future of the belt and road. This is his first post in our EF blog devoted to BRI. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) is the most visible manifestation of China’s stupendous economic resurgence, its overwhelming geopolitical ambition and its sense of purpose. The multi-trillion-dollar initiative and its supercharged timeline is the Chinese government’s long-term vision for the future. The BRI, also referred to as ‘One Belt One Road’, covers global engagement, international infrastructure, investment, technology, connectivity and trade routes from China to Europe, comprehensively integrated together in strategic, geopolitical and economic terms. The multi-civilizational and massive scope of the BRI covers over fifty countries, touches about a third of the global economy and over sixty percent of humanity. The Chinese President Xi Jinping officially launched the BRI in Beijing in May 2017 with the stated desire of creating peace and prosperity for participating nations through economic corridors and cultural cooperation.
The ‘Belt’ section of the BRI is the modern incarnation of the historical overland ‘Silk Road’, the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’. It extends from China to Europe, via Russia, Central Asia and West Asia. The evolution of the Belt and the development of a new balance of power in the heart of the Eurasian landmass will be of key interest over the coming decades. The ‘Road’ section of the BRI refers to the maritime ‘Silk Road’ which has been inspired by medieval Chinese voyages. It links routes, navies and ports into a ‘String of Pearls’. Its Western arm extends from the South China Sea, through the Indian Ocean to Africa and thence to Europe via the Suez Canal and its Eastern arm extends to the resources provided by Australia and New Zealand. These ‘roads’ are vital because the vast majority of global trade is seaborne. In addition to these the BRI has strategically located cross-border ‘corridor’ extensions, including oil and gas pipelines; it also has the potential for an ‘Arctic Silk Road’ to take advantage of climate change and to avoid existing maritime chokepoints. A ‘Digital Silk Road’ comprising the latest cable and wireless network trunk connections and technology standards, a BRI currency ‘Road’ and a ‘Space Silk Road’, could also be considered to be under the aegis of the BRI.
The significance of the BRI cannot be overestimated. It has become China’s overriding national strategy in a similar manner to the significant moves by the USA, UK, and other Western nations post WW2, in setting up the UNO, the World Bank and the IMF. This is the premier Chinese global cooperation initiative and tremendous effort is being expended into its success by both government and non-government concerns, supported by a colossal diplomatic effort. Given the immense demand for international infrastructure and China’s huge production capacity and purposeful commitment, the BRI is bound to leave a significant and lasting mark in the international arena where it has been both welcomed and met with suspicion. It brings to the forefront the need for indispensable partnerships, the need to prepare for strategic shocks, and the ability to address overstretch.
The rapid growth of China’s megalopolises and their existing mesh of connections with the wider world has provided the foundation for the BRI. Building on this milieu of people, capabilities, strategic ambition and commercial interest makes China a key player in the post Vasco da Gama era version of the Great Game, albeit with a much larger game board. The other players, big and small, could end up using this new version of the ‘game’ as their opportunity for addressing inequality and unlocking the potential of their dynamic populations, thus advancing their own interests. The new ‘game’ is reshaping alliances, redefining the internal structure of nations, reformulating worldviews and heightening security tensions. With all of this in mind, it is essential for us to examine what underpins the edifice of the BRI in order to foresee how Pax-Sinica could play out in the arena.
© Carl Michael 2020