In a previous piece we sought to offer a definition for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); showing that frequently used terms such as ‘strategy’ or ‘vision’ failed to fully capture the essence of the BRI. Instead, we proposed that BRI is instead a process that continues to evolve. That process remains dominated by China, and we argue that this is both deliberate and will continue to be the case over the years to come.
China has defined the BRI’s goals and values despite BRI’s growing thematic and geographic scope. After all, the only document defining these aspects of BRI was prepared by a number of Chinese ministries (the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Commerce) before receiving approval from the State Council. Further, BRI has increasingly been linked to China’s domestic politics. In October 2017, BRI was enshrined in the Constitution of the Communist Party of China, making it not only the key foreign policy project of the Chinese state, but also an unquestionable tenet of China’s leading political institution. On top of that, BRI has been promoted as the brainchild of President Xi Jinping, who recently ensured his ability to stay in power beyond two-terms.
It is China’s sole prerogative to extend invitations to participate in BRI; for example, the recent decision to invite Latin America to join the BRI was made in January 2018 and came directly from China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi. This unilateral approach of dealing with BRI related issues can also be seen in the way China structures some of its investments abroad. Chinese policy banks fund Chinese contractors to undertake projects in different countries. Indeed, 89% of projects that are labeled as BRI have been implemented by Chinese companies. Combined with China’s reluctance to welcome foreign investments as part of BRI, it casts doubt on how international the planning and implementing of the initiative is at this stage.
So despite the fact that Chinese rhetoric around the BRI has international aspirations and calls for enhanced international cooperation, it remains effectively a Chinese initiative. To become truly international, the BRI needs to be more than just a vehicle for Chinese investments overseas. It needs to promote idea sharing, and evolve through adopting international best practice and consultation with partners, both Chinese and non-Chinese.
However, this is unlikely to be the case. In a recent conversation with the CEO of one of Europe’s leading infrastructure managers, we were told that there is reluctance from the Chinese side to welcome foreign investors partaking in BRI, even though there exists appetite from those same foreign players.
The fact that the initiative continues to be centered around China, despite growing demands abroad for more foreign involvement, adds weight that to the idea that this decision is very deliberate. If true, BRI’s exclusivity can be interpreted as China’s way of preparing other international stakeholders for its new position in the international order – and it cannot allow foreign participation to compromise that. BRI allows China to present a narrative to the world that stresses the opportunities that come with its reemergence, as opposed to the threats that the Thucydides trap might predict. China seeks a redistribution of global power through engagement, and not confrontation; and the BRI is supposed to convince partners all around the world of this basic premise.