What, exactly, is China trying to do with the vast Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formally known as One Belt, One Road) by building connectivity across the whole Eurasian continent? Since President Xi Jinping launched the project in 2013, three narratives have dominated discussions about it—two from China and one mainly from the outside world.
In 2013–14, when thinking about the BRI had just begun, many Chinese observers presented it as a purely economic initiative. They pointed to strong continuities in many infrastructure projects that were begun well before 2013 but had since been incorporated into the all-encompassing BRI. They also pointed out its strong economic motivations, including exporting productive capacity, investing foreign exchange reserves, securing stable energy supplies, and promoting development in China’s vast but relatively backward western region.
Since 2015, the Chinese Government has begun to present more lofty and inclusive visions. Most recently, in his speech to the BRI forum in Beijing on 15 May, President Xi linked the BRI to China’s foreign policy goals of win–win and common development, believing that it would ‘generate strong momentum for building a human community of shared future’.
Common to these two Chinese narratives about the BRI is the absence of any discussion about geopolitics. This isn’t surprising. The last thing China wants is for the outside world to see the BRI as China’s geopolitical attempt to dominate Eurasia economically and eventually strategically. Beijing therefore tries hard to refute any speculation that the BRI may have competitive geopolitical purposes beyond common development and win–win cooperation.
But the outside world isn’t going to let it have an easy pass. Although the recent BRI forum was in many ways a resounding foreign policy success for Xi, especially in front of the domestic audience, paradoxically it has also revealed significant cracks in differing perceptions between China and other countries.
Those cracks are reflected in the third narrative about the BRI, mostly from countries suspicious of Chinese intentions, that it’s a Chinese grand strategy to dominate its surrounding region or at least to expand Beijing’s influence at the expense of others. Significantly, such concerns exist not just in Western democracies traditionally wary of China, such as the US and Western European countries, but also in China’s immediate neighbours, such as India. Even Russia, a quasi-ally of China lately, has grumbled in private, as the BRI seems to pose a challenge to its own Eurasian Economic Union project.
Which of these three narratives best captures the true purpose of the BRI? The first narrative about its economic rationale makes the most practical sense, but is unsatisfactory to realpolitik-oriented observers. The second and third narratives—one about China’s cooperative foreign policy, the other about China’s geostrategy of domination—can only be assessed against future Chinese policies.
Meanwhile, rather than dwelling on motivations (always a precarious exercise), we should turn the analysis around and ask what kind of adjustments, if any, the BRI will bring to Chinese foreign policy. Such a perspective sees the BRI as a moving project and a central variable in China’s evolving foreign strategy, and thus enables us to assess its strategic consequences (an eminently practical empirical exercise) rather than engaging in endless debates about strategic motivations.
Adopting this perspective, a major strategic consequence of the BRI is immediately apparent. It’s the Xi leadership’s elevation of neighbourhood policy into the central position of China’s overall strategic landscape. The best evidence of this elevation is China’s first ever conference on diplomacy towards countries on its periphery, held in October 2013—less than a year after Xi succeeded Hu Jintao as the leader of China, but almost concurrent with Xi’s announcement of China’s intention to revive the ancient Silk Road, made during his trips to Kazakhstan (September 2013) and Indonesia (October 2013).
One can’t overemphasise the significance of this strategic adjustment. For a long time since the 1990s, China’s foreign policy focus was always the US. This is understandable because the US, as the world’s sole superpower, is the country most capable of shaping China’s strategic choices. The elevation of the strategic significance of neighbouring countries means that China is no longer obsessed with US policy. Its ambitions and activism towards its Eurasian neighbours have grown, as has its confidence in dealing with the US. The US still occupies a central place in China’s strategic calculation, but many Chinese strategists now characterise the neighbouring region (zhoubian) as the new centre of gravity in Chinese foreign policy.
Paradoxically, the BRI and the strategic adjustment of neighbourhood policy were at least in part a response to the Obama administration’s Asia rebalance strategy. Perceiving the rebalance as the latest US attempt to balance or even contain Chinese power, Beijing decided to defeat it by investing in its own regional strategy.
The Sino-US contest in Asia is ongoing, but judging from Obama’s under-resourced rebalance and the absence of a new strategy from President Trump, China has won the first round.
But even this contest is only one stage—albeit a prominent one—in the unfolding new drama of China’s fresh regional strategy under Xi Jinping. The adjustment of strategic focus on the Eurasian region is the most significant strategic consequence of the BRI for China’s new foreign policy.
Feng Zhang is a Fellow in the Australian National University’s Department of International Relations and an adjunct professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.