Understanding the Mosaic of the Belt & Road

Progressive Politics

Understanding the Mosaic of the Belt & Road

Posted on: 4th August 2021
Ruby Osman
Geopolitical Researcher, Political Team

In the eight years since its inception, there’s been no shortage of ambitious plans to counter China’s sweeping Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). And as tensions between China and the West continue to ramp up, it’s no secret that rival infrastructure programmes are as much a response to the perceived threat of one country as they are to the needs of many.

The G7’s “Build Back Better World” initiative (B3W) is the latest attempt. According to the White House, B3W will provide “an affirmative, positive, alternative vision for the world” which “reflects our values, our standards, and our way of doing business”. Over the next decade, hundreds of billions in public and private financing will be funnelled into addressing a $40tn infrastructure gap in developing countries.

But for this – or any – response to the BRI to succeed, would-be challengers will need to unpack exactly what it is that makes China such an attractive partner for many developing countries. Identifying points of commonality, not just conflict, will be key to delivering genuine benefit, as will recognising that a sizeable chunk of China’s success comes from rejecting the same narrative of Cold War-style ideological conflict that many Western leaders are increasingly pushing.

The Belt and Road Initiative: A Push for Hegemony?

Any constructive response to the BRI should, of course, begin by looking at how Chinese infrastructure investment is actually playing out on the ground. The BRI has proved a handy focal point for more hawkish voices in recent years, held up as the ultimate symbol of Beijing’s intention to trap developing countries in unsustainable debt and establish itself as a new global hegemon.

The reality is rather more complex. Far from a cohesive, centrally administered push for ideological domination, Chinese infrastructure investment is in fact deeply fragmented. Eight years on, there is still no set definition for what comprises a BRI project and no official records of total spending or even the number of participating countries (by various metrics, anywhere from 68 to 140 countries count as BRI partners).

This means that as the initiative expands beyond its initial Euro-Asian focus, the term “BRI” can feasibly apply to almost any infrastructure project carried out abroad, whether that’s by private or state-owned companies – and irrespective of how closely they serve the strategic goals of the Party centre. In other words, the BRI is far from Xi Jinping’s one-man show. Instead, investment is driven by the often competing interests of actors at all levels, from provincial governments and large state-owned enterprises, all the way down to small private companies.

In fact, for all its rhetorical dressing, the BRI in many ways functions as little more than a branding exercise for a sweepingly diverse range of projects, many of which were underway well before 2013. While it may have benefitted both Beijing and Western leaders alike to largely overlook this point so far, recognising the deeply fragmented mechanics of the BRI will be key to crafting any effective response.

In the case of B3W, therefore, a lot of initial criticism has risked missing the point. Scepticism that ideological differences mean that G7 countries won’t be able to put up a united, coherent front to China works on the misguided assumption that China itself poses some perfectly crafted ideological threat. Instead, G7 leaders should recognise that flexibility can be an asset for them just as it is for China, leveraging each country’s respective expertise, resources and regional ties to craft a truly responsive and adaptable alternative to Chinese investment.

The upcoming G20 summit in October will provide a much-needed platform to flesh out investment plans. B3W is not the only project on the go – there is a sweeping appetite for action, with the EU, Japan and India all working on similar initiatives of their own. Shifting the centre of action from the G7 to the G20 – of which China is also a member – could therefore prove a smart move, allowing leaders to benefit from a greater breadth of experience while pre-empting Beijing’s usual accusations that alternative infrastructure schemes are little more than attempts to exclude and isolate China.

Resisting ‘Cold War 2.0’:

The idea of genuine responsiveness to developing countries’ needs must be at the heart of any productive response to the BRI – not least because the growing tendency to view the BRI as part of a zero-sum tug-of-war between China and the West overlooks exactly what it is that makes China an attractive partner in the first place.

Many Western leaders have made no secret of the fact they increasingly see this as a battle of competing poles, with China as a “systemic rival”. And yet – in rhetoric at least – Beijing painstakingly avoids doing the same.

Instead, China frames the BRI as the natural extension of a decades-old approach to diplomatic engagement that continues to centre “mutual benefit” and “equal partnership” over more hierarchal models of developing-developed relations. In other words, despite the stark economic asymmetry between China and many of its BRI partners, China positions itself as a champion of those developing countries neglected by Western aid and investment, leveraging its privileged position to continue delivering win-win outcomes without – explicitly at least – imposing its own political will.

This key dimension is often overlooked in narratives of a Cold War-esque ideological face-off. Much of China’s success is, in fact, precisely because it avoids making hard and fast ideological demands. Beijing’s defining principles of mutual benefit and non-interference in another country’s “internal affairs” were forged in the early 1950s as an explicit pushback against the ideological demands of Cold War superpowers – and the flexibility they afford China’s partner countries continues to be a competitive advantage to this day. This means that what we often see as Beijing’s ‘rival’ ideology is in fact an alternative approach to diplomatic engagement altogether, explicitly designed to leave room for developing countries’ own values and ideologies within it.

This, more than any lack of coherence, will be the key challenge for initiatives such as B3W. G7 leaders may hail the initiative as a much-needed, values-based shift from the BRI, but we should be careful not to mistake an absence of Western liberal values as an absence of values entirely. And while B3W’s focus on four core areas of climate, health, digital technology and gender equality may play well to Western audiences accustomed to coverage of the BRI as solely traditional infrastructure projects, Beijing has already been pioneering its own digital, health and green “branches” of the BRI for several years.

This is not to say that Western leaders should abandon political principles or liberal values – just that they will have to get more sophisticated in how they promote them. In fact, leaders have an under-explored window of opportunity to take Beijing up on its claims that the BRI is a truly inclusive, collaborative effort. At worst, expressing a willingness to collaborate on certain key areas might succeed in calling Beijing’s bluff and exposing the limits of the BRI’s supposed “community of common destiny”. At best, combining the agility of Chinese investment with the experience of G7 nations could produce genuinely novel solutions to global infrastructure needs.

Without this, China will be a tough act to follow. Beijing has proven time and time again that it can be genuinely responsive to the needs of developing countries – all while turning a blind eye to more unsavoury “internal” practices. The primary aim of alternative infrastructure programs must therefore be delivering genuine and progressive benefit to those that need it – with countering Chinese influence as a secondary outcome. If not, G7 leaders may well find it impossible to sway countries away from Beijing’s “equal partner” pitch.

A way forward for investment:

None of this is to say that attempts to counter the BRI are doomed to failure. With the right political will, G7 and G20 countries alike have the financial resources and the practical experience to offer genuinely compelling alternatives to Chinese investment. Just as importantly, any move to increase global infrastructure investment should be welcomed as a positive, irrelevant of whether it succeeds in shifting the balance of power with China.

But going forward, leaders will need to recognise that the BRI is not quite the enemy they seem to think it is. Recognising the BRI as a deeply fragmented mosaic of projects – not some meticulously crafted debt-trap masterplan – is crucial for tempering more divisive voices at home. But leaders must also be ready to acknowledge and learn from the flipside of this, too, and see that it is exactly this fragmentation, flexibility and responsiveness that has made China such an attractive partner so far.

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