China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is a project of monumental scale and significance. Involving 65 nations, more than half the population of the planet, touching 40% of global GDP, costing an estimated $1 trillion, it is the single largest infrastructure development since the Marshall plan of 1948. The project is, in geopolitical and economic terms, incredibly expansive and ambitious. Not only is it a gargantuan investment of money, but the idea of creating a 21st century Silk Road shows Beijing’s geopolitical aims are extraordinarily ambitious. With domestic and international goals, it is a manoeuvre that could offer China a formidable instrument of soft power, something which it has not previously enjoyed to the same extent as the US. The fact that President Xi Jinping has been elevated to the status of “core leader”, a title only previously awarded to Mao Tse-Tung and Deng Xiaoping demonstrates the extent to which the BRI is designed to enhance China’s status. Although the project has been in the pipeline since 2013, there is a general feeling that under Trump’s leadership in the US, it gained a new momentum. Obama’s Asia pivot, which focused on providing a counterweight to China’s influence, and created the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) - a major free trade zone involved 12 Pacific nations. However, Trump has pulled America out of it. 

Trump’s move may over time place the economic leadership of the world with Beijing over the coming years. He may have discounted that and assumed that without US leadership and participation BRI won’t succeed. However, TTP is still going ahead without US involvement. Trump might also consider withdrawing troops from South Korea and Japan, if US allies do not contribute more financially to maintaining them. His “America First” obsession - manifested in his protectionist measures- will leave a vacuum that China is ready to fill. How the other countries involved in the project have reacted merits considerable attention. Fears of Chinese expansionism were bound to be and are- legion, among both larger and smaller powers, but there is also a lot of positive feeling about the BRI plan, which promises also to bring development and infrastructure to areas in need of it. 

The official news agency Xinhua has called BRI “a Chinese solution to global economic blues. Broadly, it consists of two elements - the ‘belt’ is the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ which is a series of overland corridors which connect China with Europe, passing through Central Asia and the Middle East. The ‘road’ is the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ though it is somewhat confusingly in fact a sea route, which will connect the Southern coasts of China to East Africa and the Mediterranean. The initiative involves immense infrastructure construction: power plants, wind farms, factories, railways, pipelines, industrial parks, even 'safe cities’ for workers in Pakistan. It has even been suggested that China will move its infrastructure development plans as far as the Arctic - the next frontier for competing powers. In January of this year, Beijing laid out its vision for a ‘Polar Silk Road’ for ships. Given that numerous analysts have foreseen the Arctic, with its considerable oil riches and its strategic positioning as the next battleground for global influence, it seems that the regime is thinking firmly about how to extend its long-term influence.

The geopolitical benefits of the BRI for China are evident. “It’s about making China the dominant country in the region,” says Tom Miller, the author of China’s Asian Dream. China has, for a long time, used hard power tactics to assert its might: increasing militarization and a growth-at-any-costs economic policy, buttressed by extremely tight control of its citizens. What it does not have, but the US had in spades, is soft power. The Confucius Institutes around the world do little to push the “Chinese dream”, but the BRI will be a way of doing this. It will bring into being projects that have both economic and civic consequences, as infrastructure projects often do. A good example is the ‘Safe Cities’ initiative in Pakistan. 

The plan is to protect infrastructure and Chinese workers from terrorist attacks by building safer buildings around the city centre, introducing CCTV and changing lighting, as well as training local police. Clearly this will have an impact on urban life and on society as a whole. Analysts Evelyn Goh of ANU and James Reilly of the University of Sydney have elaborated how the project will expand China’s influence, asserting: “The BRI generates political influence through ‘connectivity power’ — the influence a central government accrues through infrastructure projects that connect its domestic periphery and neighbouring states to the central core economy.” There is the hope that countries which stand to benefit from the project will in turn promote China’s interests. For example, in the wake of major Chinese investment in the Greek shipping industry, its representatives suggest that the government pursues a non-confrontational China policy.

Obviously a project of this size has caught worldwide attention. Europe and the US currently seem uninterested or slightly hostile. German Chancellor Angela Merkel turned down an invitation from Xi Jinping to attend the BRI forum last year. Of all European leaders, only one G7 leader, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, confirmed he would attend. US President Donald Trump, committed to domestic issues, seems uninterested. The Russian response is definitely worth examining at some length. Chinese companies have invested more than $225 billion internationally in 2016, but only 2% of that in Russia. Vladimir Putin, about to procure another term as President, has said that he welcomes the BRI. "I hope that it has paved the way for a new stage of cooperation in Eurasia," he told the press, in a nationally televised appearance on June 15th last year, adding, "I have no doubt that we will work together...[to] benefit both the Chinese and Russian peoples.” Underpinning this, however, is an awareness that the BRI could threaten prevailing Russian influence in central Asia, which Russia still considers to be firmly within its sphere of influence. Economically, this concern is validated by the figures: in 2013, trade between China and the five Central Asian states was $50 billion, while trade between Russia and these countries stood at just $30 billion.

Moscow has tried itself to re-establish its free trade influence by means of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) - an initiative which has known many fits and starts since its inception in 2014. Consisting of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, it was initially conceived as a way of countering the influence of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, which Russia felt was wooing away countries like Ukraine from its sphere of influence. Now Europe is far from its immediate concern. Sijbren de Jong, a strategic analyst from The Hague Centre on Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL, "The Chinese know that the Russians need them much more than the other way around. If you look at how the [BRI] is being rolled out, you can tell that Russia almost doesn't feature in it.” 

Whilst the BRI definitely proposes pipelines in former Soviet states, in Belarus and Ukraine, with Moscow and St Petersburg as important staging posts, the links are mainly limited to the southern part of Europe. Putin is however blustering his way through the imbalance of power. He announced his vision of "a great Eurasian partnership" between Moscow and Beijing at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in 2016 when he asserted that Russia was making an economic "pivot toward Asia" in response to Western sanctions over Ukraine. "The main thing we should do is combine our efforts within the [EEU] and the Chinese Silk Road initiative. Can this be done? I'm sure it can,” he told the press. For this to work however, the EEU would need to become a more concrete organisation and China has not until now negotiated with it as a whole, but rather worked with individual member states to make infrastructure deals. Alexander Gabuev, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Centre has suggested that a deal between the EEU and the BRI could require up to ten years of talks. Nonetheless there is reason to believe that cooperation between the EEU and BRI could work. Raffaello Pantucci, the Director for International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, has suggested that there are also benefits to China in negotiating with the EEU. He says, “If you are looking at crossing Eurasia with lots of little markets along the way, well, you've got lots of tariff barriers to cross to get your goods across the border -- you've got lots of different markets and different standards… [But] if you have one common standard like the Eurasian Economic Union, actually that could work quite well, because it would mean -- from a Chinese perspective -- you basically cross one border to get into the common Eurasian Economic Union space, and then one border at the end to get out and into Europe."

How do the Central Asian states, with both Russia and China vying for their interest, feel about it? Some analysts have pointed to the fact that in countries where the economy is in dire straits the financial benefits enormously outweigh any questions about sovereignty. “There are certain countries, like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where it is literally keeping the lights on,” says Tom Miller, pointing to massive Chinese power transmission projects in those nations. Nonetheless there are concerns about an influx of migrants from China. Beijing has long been inclined to ship its own workers in, rather than using the local labour force. This causes resentment, for obvious reasons. It is a problem that has already been experienced in the oil sector in western Kazakhstan and in the mining sector in Kyrgyzstan. Tensions have been observed along roads being built in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where local workers and Chinese workers operate alongside each other. Communication problems abound, and clashes have resulted from rumours that Chinese workers are better paid. Also present are worries about Chinese-developed industrial plants having a deleterious effect on the local environments. In Kyrgyzstan and in Tajikistan there have been complaints about pollution from recently constructed cement plants and refineries. Regarding ecological concerns, China has issued a robust defence of its overall strategy, reminding those concerned that China is now leading the world in domestic clean energy investment and that responsible infrastructure construction has a broadly favourable outcome for the climate. Nonetheless a large number of the construction projects China will undertake as part of the BRI are coal power plants. Apparently China had been involved in 240 such projects in 25 BRI countries by the end of 2016. Additionally, according to the Climate Risk Index, six of the ten most vulnerable countries to climate change are potentially in the BRI zone. Concerns about ecology and the importation of labour are not necessarily going to affect projects in states where there is no functioning democracy and little heed is paid to the demands of citizens. However, should resentment develop to the point that it causes mass unrest, it could cause governments to reconsider their position. This has been the case with the Chinese-funded $3 billion dollar Myitsone Dam, which Myanmar backed out of in 2017 after huge protests over the environmental consequences. 

Pakistan, another major power involved in BRI, exemplifies the opportunities and complexities the project will bring. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has been a vocal supporter of the BRI and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Beijing will spend $60 billion in infrastructure. Some of it is in loans which Islamabad will have to repay. Plans include the construction of railways, roads, airports, industrial parks, agricultural farms, a fibre-optic network, one of the world’s largest solar farms, and a high speed train between Karachi and Peshawar. The Pakistani Prime Minister has stated,”Pakistan’s economy has recorded a remarkable revival in the past four years. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will further contribute to our economic upsurge.” Besides this, in geopolitical terms, Pakistan is very happy to ally itself with China. It is extremely disgruntled with the US concerning the latter’s policy in Afghanistan. The two powers have clashed on numerous occasions - largely to do with accusations that Pakistan has not shut down what the US calls Taliban “safe havens”. Hence Pakistan is now keen to work with China. 

Nonetheless there are some obstacles to effective cooperation. The concerns felt by workers in central Asia are echoed in Pakistan. It is estimated the CPEC will create one million jobs, a fact which the government has enticingly announced, arguing that the project will “produce equal opportunities for all regions of Pakistan”. The fear is that in that good jobs will be given to Chinese workers, 15,000 of whom will soon be in Pakistan. Local workers will be left with the rest. Additionally, the systems of government are different: the Chinese governmental structure is highly centralized, while the Pakistani governmental structure is decentralized with greater power and autonomy in the provinces. This means that Islamabad cannot simply impose its will on the nation, which the Chinese may feel frustrating. Furthermore, China is not viewed kindly by the Muslim world because of its repression of the Uighur people in Xinjiang province. There is also a justifiable distrust, with memories of British imperialism between1858 and 1947, towards any incursion from a foreign power. This is a fear held particularly strongly by the more militant end of Islam which may attempt to obstruct what is viewed as Chinese imperialism. 

India meanwhile, is openly shunning the BRI. Firstly, it is concerned about the fact that it will cross through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Secondly, the Indian government believes it is simply an attempt by China to gain a strategic upper hand in the Indian Ocean. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has accused Beijing of trying to “undermine the sovereignty of other nations” and refused to go to the BRI summit of last summer. Concerns about sovereignty and the fact that the BRI will essentially extend China’s influence all the way to Europe are preponderant. The idea that it will export its model of operating is particularly worrying to the West, given the fact that it is a highly repressive, coercive regime guilty of human rights abuses. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch raised concerns last year about the treatment of people along the new Silk Road route in western China that borders Central Asia. The group said Chinese authorities had heightened surveillance and repression to prevent potential unrest that could impede the project in the Xinjiang region. On the other hand, some argue that one of the positive aspects is that China (if its pronouncements are to be believed) will be a force for peace and political stability. “China can allay fears about its rapid economic rise by using its new-found clout in a benevolent manner,” Singapore minister Chan Chun Sing, who is likely to be the next Prime Minister, has said the New Silk Road project will be a catalyst for the “next phase of growth in the global economy”. Indeed, the Chinese have a saying they could use as a motto for the project: “use your benevolence to bring about a global community.” If the prosperity that it brings will be shared among the nations involved, it could be of tangible benefit for the countries. 

In conclusion, one recalls Chou en Lai’s famous statement on the effects of the French Revolution. It is far too early to judge whether the BRI will bring more good than ill, since it is at such an early stages- the whole initiative is not expected to conclude until at least 2050. 

Beyond conjecturing about possible outcomes, what we can see now is the profound shift in global politics as Trump turns away from Asia. We might also consider how existing infrastructure developments are progressing and use them to consider what the future will hold. In November 2017, for example, Pakistan decided to withdraw from a $14 billion project of major significance - building the gigantic Diamer-Bhasha dam. This was because of Islamabad’s refusal to accept the deal’s financial conditions. In the very same month, Nepal backed out of a $2.5 billion hydroelectric dam with Chinese state-owned company China Gezhouba Group, citing a lack of an open tender process. A major pipeline project between Russia and China, begun in mid-2014, destined to carry gas to China by 2019 has apparently stuttered and stalled. Executing a plan of such magnitude across countries with wildly different political, economic and civil structures will require superhuman efforts of negotiation, planning, diplomacy and hard graft, with risks and benefits for all involved. But the Chinese saying goes, “a tall tree attracts the wind.” 

Sara Bielecki