The Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), often referred to as the New Silk Road project, has emerged as one of the most ambitious and far-reaching infrastructure development projects of the 21st century. Xi’s ambitious vision is to construct a network of infrastructure across the world that will facilitate trade, investment, and connectivity with China. The BRI is composed of the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the sea-based “21st Century Maritime Silk Road.”
With an estimated price tag of $1 trillion, the BRI seeks to connect Asia, Europe, and Africa through a network of roads, railways, ports, and other infrastructure, with the aim of enhancing economic cooperation and connectivity among participating countries. Supplementing the original “One Belt, One Road” are now the “Digital Silk Road,” the “Belt and Road Space Information Corridor,” the “Health Silk Road,” and the “Green Belt and Road.”
While the project promises to bring economic opportunities to many nations, it also carries significant geostrategic implications, especially in the context of Beijing’s growing influence in Central Asia and Europe. This article explores how the BRI is bolstering Beijing’s geostrategic influence in Central Asia and Europe, and the implications this holds for the United States and India.
The vision of One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR) and BRI
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled an ambitious vision that would reshape global connectivity and trade dynamics. He introduced two monumental initiatives: the Silk Road Economic Belt, envisioned to link China with Europe through Central and Western Asia, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, designed to establish vital connections between China, Southeast Asian nations, the Middle East, and Africa. Originally referred to collectively as the One Belt, One Road initiative, these initiatives eventually coalesced into what is now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The first traverses over land, effectively revitalizing the ancient Silk Road, extending from China’s Sinai to Rome. This overland route encompasses a northern branch connecting China to Russia and a southern route linking China to Europe via Iran. These interconnected routes span across Asia and Africa, forging crucial connections between East Asia, Europe, and Russia. Simultaneously, the maritime portion of the Silk Road facilitates maritime trade, linking China’s seas to the Mediterranean through the Indian Ocean, the Arabian seas, and the Red Sea.
Chinese leadership has consistently portrayed the BRI as a collaborative effort underpinned by the principles of mutual benefit, aimed at fostering global peace and development. As outlined in the initiative’s overarching vision, the BRI seeks to enhance financial, trade, and people-to-people linkages, address the pressing demand for infrastructure financing and development, promote policy coordination, and foster greater financial integration.
The BRI project represents one of the most ambitious and expansive infrastructure endeavors ever conceptualized. The exact amount of Chinese investment in the BRI is difficult to estimate, as there is no single source of data. However, various estimates put the figure at between $1 trillion and $8 trillion. This includes investments in infrastructure, such as roads, railways, ports, and power plants; as well as investments in trade, finance, and education.
With a substantial Chinese investment of $900 billion, the BRI’s Silk Road infrastructure project will facilitate connectivity between China and a vast expanse, including Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. Notably, the New Silk Road comprises three critical routes, each with its vital subroutes.
The land route initiates in Xi’an, situated in central China, before extending towards the Kazakhstan border. It then progresses southwestward through Iran, traverses through Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, crosses the Bosporus, and advances through Europe, passing through Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. From there, it extends southward to Venice, ultimately converging with the planned maritime route.
Within the framework of the Maritime Silk Road, China is poised to invest in port development along the Indian Ocean, spanning from Southeast Asia to East Africa. President Xi Jinping has articulated that this ambitious initiative aims to overcome connectivity bottlenecks in Asia and facilitate the seamless flow of maritime trade.
The Belt and Road Initiative, with its multifaceted land and maritime components, embodies China’s bold vision for global connectivity, economic cooperation, and shared prosperity, signifying a monumental undertaking that holds the potential to reshape international trade and development.
Preserving party control and ensuring domestic security and stability remain Chinese President Xi’s top priorities. However, the BRI is central to his strategy of expanding China’s influence and establishing its place as a global leader.
Growth of BRI
BRI encompassed 65 countries and a population of 4.4 billion, representing 63% of the global population. These nations collectively possess an economic worth of $21 trillion, contributing to 29% of global trade. China has committed significant resources to support this initiative, establishing the New Silk Road Fund with $40 billion in funding to promote private investments along the BRI. Additionally, the China Development Bank has pledged nearly $900 billion to fund over 900 projects involving 60 countries, further fortifying the BRI’s economic foundation.
The countries of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have now spread across all continents: 44 countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa; 35 countries are in Europe & Central Asia; 25 countries are in East Asia & Pacific (including China); 21 countries are in Latin America & Caribbean; 18 countries in Middle East & North Africa; and 6 countries are in South- East Asia
While initial estimates projected the project’s cost at over $1 trillion, various sources provide divergent figures, with Moody’s estimating a range between $2 trillion and $8 trillion. Morgan Stanley has predicted China’s total expenses for the BRI could reach $1.2–1.3 trillion by 2027. Between 2013 and 2018, China invested $614 billion in the BRI, with substantial allocations to the energy sector (38%), transport (27%), real estate (10%), and metals (6%). More than half of these investments were directed toward Asia, while 23% went to Africa, and 13% to the Middle East. Notably, one of the largest projects to date is the $68 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a comprehensive initiative connecting China to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. These investments underscore the significant economic impact and strategic importance of the BRI on a global scale.
Infrastructure development and beyond
Infrastructure development plays a pivotal role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), encompassing a range of projects aimed at enhancing connectivity, trade, and economic growth. The BRI includes the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), featuring key ports like Colombo in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Maday Island in Myanmar, and Port Victoria in the Seychelles. These ports hold immense strategic significance, as they enable China to secure access for transporting crucial commodities essential for its industrial and domestic requirements while facilitating the efficient distribution of Chinese products worldwide. Given their role in energy and goods transportation, safeguarding these ports is paramount.
However, ports are just one facet of the BRI’s comprehensive infrastructure strategy, which also encompasses roads, railways, airports, and energy infrastructure such as pipelines and dams. Through the construction of roads, railways, ports, and power plants, the BRI has improved connectivity and boosted economic growth in regions that were previously underserved.
Energy projects, in particular, constitute a substantial portion of the BRI, accounting for approximately 44% of overall construction, surpassing transportation infrastructure at roughly 30%. China has accelerated its efforts to integrate Africa into the MSR by expeditiously constructing a modern standard-gauge rail link between Nairobi and Mombasa, exemplifying the project’s multifaceted approach to infrastructure development. CPEC has transformed Pakistan’s transportation network and energy sector, injecting vitality into its dying economy. All while making the BRI look lucrative and charming.
Beyond physical infrastructure, the BRI blueprint includes plans to establish fifty special economic zones, drawing inspiration from the successful Shenzhen Special Economic Zone initiated in 1980 during China’s economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping. These economic zones have the potential to expand the international use of the Chinese currency, the renminbi, further solidifying China’s economic influence on a global scale. As the BRI continues to evolve, its multifaceted infrastructure development efforts remain central to its goal of fostering international connectivity, trade, and economic cooperation.
Economically, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) serves as a means for China to tap into new investment opportunities, expand its export markets, and bolster domestic consumption. This strategic move is a response to slowing economic growth, prompting China’s leadership to seek new avenues for its consumer goods and excess industrial capacity.
The BRI not only facilitates the cost-effective and rapid transportation of Chinese goods to European and global markets, thus conferring structural economic advantages, but it also secures access to vital natural resources through BRI corridors. By diversifying trade routes, reducing transportation costs, and opening new markets, the BRI enables Chinese state-controlled construction companies to further enhance their trade with central Asia and Europe, expanding China’s sphere of influence beyond Asia and ensuring a stable supply of resources like Uranium and rare metals from Central Asia.
China has become the largest trading partner for over 130 countries, with bilateral trade volume reaching $6 trillion in 2020. Additionally, the BRI has helped China to exploit international markets by dumping its mass-manufactured cheap products.
Evolution of BRI
In addition to the land and maritime components, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also encompasses the Digital Silk Road, a transformative dimension aimed at fostering global connectivity through advanced telecommunications and digital infrastructure. This visionary initiative seeks to link China with the world by facilitating the exchange of digital information, technologies, and innovations. It involves the construction of high-speed internet networks, data centers, and the expansion of digital services to enhance cross-border communication and collaboration. The Digital Silk Road plays a pivotal role in modernizing economies, spurring technological advancements, and promoting digital inclusivity, thereby extending the reach of the BRI into the digital realm.
Furthermore, the BRI envisions an expansion into outer space through the Space Silk Route, reflecting China’s aspirations to explore and harness the vast potential of space for peaceful and cooperative purposes. This ambitious undertaking involves the development of satellite networks, space exploration technologies, and international collaboration in space-related ventures. The Space Silk Route holds the promise of scientific discovery, Earth observation, satellite-based communications, and navigation systems that can benefit not only China but also the global community. By venturing into space, the BRI demonstrates China’s commitment to advancing the frontiers of science and technology while fostering international cooperation in this frontier. As the BRI continues to evolve, these digital and space components are poised to play increasingly significant roles in shaping the future of global connectivity and cooperation.
In launching the Digital Silk Road and the BRI Space Information Corridor, the provision of Chinese technology and access to Chinese networks provides Beijing the opportunity to enhance digital connectivity in partner states and regions, advance Chinese technological standards, and support China’s rise as a technological power
Digital Silk Road
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) extends far beyond physical infrastructure, as it ventures into the realms of the Digital Silk Road and the BRI Space Information Corridor, highlighting its comprehensive nature. With the Digital Silk Road, China aims to bolster digital connectivity in partner nations and regions, establish Chinese technological standards, and solidify its position as a global tech powerhouse. Remarkably, China now contributes 23% of global cross-border data flows, driven largely by the use of Chinese apps and services in Japan and Southeast Asia, nearly doubling the U.S. share. Moreover, China’s rollout of a leading digital renminbi seeks to collect more data and reduce the dominance of the U.S. dollar. Chinese tech firms are also exporting advanced “smart city technologies” and integrated “country-as-a-platform” solutions, potentially exporting China’s techno-authoritarian toolkit.
Furthermore, the “Green Silk Road” initiative aligns with China’s ambitions to enhance its international image while promoting its high-tech products overseas. China’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2060 serves both as a global pledge and an industrial policy, positioning the nation to reinforce its dominance in the burgeoning international market for wind turbines, photovoltaics, electric vehicles, lithium-ion batteries, and smart grid technologies. In 2019, China manufactured over 70% of the world’s solar photovoltaics and controlled up to three-quarters of global lithium-ion battery cell manufacturing capacity. These sectors represent some of the world’s fastest-growing industries, with 72% of new electricity generating capacity installed globally in 2019 being renewable. As China leads in these sectors, it solidifies its role as a major player in the green technology transition and economic development on a global scale.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has garnered participation from nearly 70 nations, highlighting its vast geopolitical reach and ambitions. This monumental plan seeks to promote industrial development not only in Asia and Africa but also in China’s western provinces, which have yet to experience the economic prosperity enjoyed by the country’s coastal regions. With a staggering annual expenditure of approximately $150 billion in the 68 countries that have embraced the initiative, the BRI underscores China’s dedication to global infrastructure development and economic cooperation.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visionary project, often referred to as his pet project, entails the creation of new roads, railways, bridges, and ports, effectively resurrecting the overland and maritime trade routes that historically led to China’s prominence. The BRI serves as a central component of Xi’s strategy to expand China’s influence and position it as a global leader, a commitment so profound that it was enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution in 2017. Experts have identified various motivations behind the BRI, including a response to the U.S. “pivot to Asia,” interpreted by many in Beijing as an attempt to contain China through expanded U.S. economic ties in Southeast Asia.
One pivotal moment that propelled the BRI occurred in January 2020 when China and Myanmar inked 33 agreements, solidifying their commitment to mammoth projects within the flagship initiative. These agreements, encompassing politics, trade, investment, and people-to-people communications, primarily focused on the implementation of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), akin to the USD 60 billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CMEC, a colossal connectivity project, links southwestern China to the Indian Ocean, resembling the strategic significance of the Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea for China’s access to global trade routes. This development underscored the BRI’s momentum and its role in reshaping regional and global geopolitics.
China and the United Arab Emirates signed a memorandum of understanding in 2022 to expand cooperation on the BRI. This agreement includes plans to develop infrastructure, trade, and investment between the two countries. The UAE is a strategically important location for China, as it is located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The agreement is seen as a way for China to further its economic and political influence in the region.
The China-Laos Railway, the first high-speed railway in Laos, was opened in December 2021. The railway is expected to boost economic growth and development in Laos. It will also shorten the travel time between China and Laos, making it easier for businesses and people to travel between the two countries.
China has also been investing in BRI projects in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In Africa, China has invested in infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, and ports. In Latin America, China has invested in energy projects such as oil and gas pipelines. In the Caribbean, China has invested in tourism projects such as hotels and resorts.
The BRI’s Central Asia Pivot
Central Asia, with its vast energy resources, strategic location, and historically rich ties to the Silk Road, plays a crucial role in the BRI. Beijing views this region as a bridgehead for expanding its influence in both Europe and the Middle East. China’s investments in infrastructure development, such as pipelines, railways, and roads, have been instrumental in enhancing connectivity within Central Asia. This not only fosters economic development in the region but also deepens China’s political and economic influence.
- Energy Resources: Central Asia is rich in energy resources, particularly natural gas and oil. China’s investments in pipelines, such as the China-Central Asia Gas Pipeline, help secure a stable supply of energy resources. This energy security is crucial for Beijing’s long-term economic growth and geopolitical ambitions.
- Trade Routes: Central Asia offers multiple trade routes that connect China to Europe, including the ancient Silk Road routes. By investing in modern infrastructure, China can boost trade with Europe while reducing its reliance on maritime routes vulnerable to piracy and geopolitical tensions.
- Geostrategic Partnerships: China has been forging close relationships with Central Asian nations through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and bilateral agreements. These partnerships provide Beijing with a platform to exert greater influence in the region.
- Security Concerns: China has also shown interest in the security of Central Asia, particularly in the context of combating terrorism and extremism. This allows Beijing to present itself as a responsible global player, furthering its soft power in the region.
China and Russia
Russia plays a significant role in the New Silk Road, as it is a major partner in the initiative. China and Russia’s cooperation extends to Central Asia, where Russia seeks to exert influence through initiatives like the Eurasian Customs Union. Russia aims to strengthen its soft power and military presence in Central Asia while facilitating the region’s hydroelectric development.
Implications for Central Asia
While the BRI offers Central Asia opportunities for economic development and modernization, it also raises concerns about debt dependency on China and potential loss of sovereignty. Central Asian countries must carefully balance their relations with Beijing while maintaining strong ties with other global powers.
China and Afghanistan
China’s involvement in Afghanistan has increased, making it the country’s largest business investor. Chinese companies have been involved in construction projects, and there is interest in Afghanistan’s abundant natural resources, including minerals like lithium. Afghanistan’s resources are estimated to be worth over $1 trillion, with significant reserves of essential minerals. China is keen on establishing a role in Afghanistan through CPEC’s expansion, particularly in enhancing transport infrastructure to ensure security for its investments and resource extraction.
Iran and China
Iran has shown interest in cooperating with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially regarding the Silk Road land route to Europe. The proposed route would start in western China, pass through Tehran, and eventually extend into Europe. Bilateral trade between Iran and China could potentially reach $600 billion per year, bolstered by their strategic partnership. Iran’s geostrategic location, bordering the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, is of particular interest to China, which views Iran as a key partner for energy security and arms trade.
China and Turkey
China and Turkey aim to increase economic cooperation and bilateral trade to $100 billion. Major logistics companies from China, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey have formed a consortium to transport goods from China to Europe, bypassing Russian territory. Tensions between Russia and Turkey have contributed to the development of alternative trade routes.
Enhancing Influence in Europe
The BRI’s extension into Europe has significant geostrategic implications. Beijing’s investments in European ports, railways, and infrastructure have the potential to reshape the continent’s economic and political landscape.
- Economic Integration: China’s investments in European infrastructure foster economic integration between the two regions. This could make Europe more economically dependent on China, giving Beijing greater leverage in European affairs.
- Political Influence: As China becomes a major player in European infrastructure, it gains political influence in key EU member states. This could lead to divisions within the EU, weakening the bloc’s ability to respond to global challenges.
- Security Concerns: Chinese investments in critical infrastructure raise concerns about national security. For instance, China’s control of European ports could pose security risks, especially in times of conflict or crisis.
China’s Ambitious Railway Project to Europe
China has embarked on an ambitious plan to construct a high-speed railway connecting China and the UK, traversing through a multitude of countries including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and France. With an estimated cost of approximately $150 billion, this extensive railway project is slated for completion between 2020 and 2025. The endeavor represents a significant component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aimed at bolstering connectivity and trade across multiple nations.
The China-Europe freight train service has continued to grow in recent years. In 2022, over 15,000 trains ran on the service. The service is a major transportation route for goods between China and Europe. It is seen as a way to reduce shipping costs and improve efficiency.
Europe’s Diverse Response to the Belt and Road Initiative
In Europe, the BRI has generated a complex array of responses as countries grapple with the balance between their traditional alliances, notably with the United States, and the potential economic opportunities presented by China’s expansive initiative. The European Union (EU) has not formulated a unified policy toward the BRI, reflecting the diverse interests and concerns of its member states.
Some European countries and cities have welcomed Chinese investments with open arms, while others have approached the BRI with more caution. The latter group seeks assurances from China that it will adhere to international standards and prioritize economic cooperation over geostrategic objectives.
Greece and Italy’s Economic Imperatives
In the face of economic challenges and the need for revitalization, Greece and Italy have signaled their interest in participating in the BRI. Both countries are grappling with recession, high unemployment rates, and a desire to enhance their competitiveness. China’s investments and infrastructure projects have appeared as a lifeline to jump-start their economic recoveries.
Notably, Greece has witnessed substantial investments from Chinese state shipping giant COSCO, which has transformed Piraeus port into the busiest trade hub in the Mediterranean. Italy, too, has shown interest in potential collaboration with China to address its economic woes.
Bilateral Trade Arrangements between EU and China
During a critical EU-China summit in April 2019, European Union (EU) members and China reached an agreement outlining a roadmap for specific bilateral trade arrangements. The primary goal of these arrangements is to address unfair trade practices and subsidies. This prospective agreement is anticipated to satisfy European demands for increased access to China’s protected market for exports and investments. Simultaneously, it advances China’s ambition to position itself as a 21st-century superpower by gaining full access to the expansive European market.
Challenges and Opposition from partners
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has encountered significant opposition in partner countries, raising concerns and sparking reactions that reflect its complex impact. In some nations, particularly those that have acquired substantial debt to finance BRI-related infrastructure projects, ballooning deficits have become a pressing issue. Countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Laos have grappled with the financial consequences of these investments.
BRI projects are typically funded through low-interest loans rather than aid grants, a distinction highlighted by experts. Furthermore, the involvement of Chinese firms in these projects and the lack of transparency in bidding processes have led to cost overruns, project cancellations, and political backlash.
Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port has been adversely affected by its engagement with Chinese diplomacy. The inability to meet loan repayment obligations led to a significant outcome— the port’s lease to a Chinese company for an extended period of 99 years. This development has posed considerable challenges for the Sri Lankan economy. Moreover, to help mitigate the economic repercussions, India stepped in by providing a substantial Line of Credit worth $1 billion USD to assist Sri Lanka in navigating through this crisis.
In Malaysia, for instance, Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, elected in 2018, campaigned against what he viewed as overpriced BRI initiatives. Upon taking office, he canceled $22 billion worth of BRI projects, alleging that funds had been redirected to entities controlled by his predecessor. The new government in the Maldives has also begun to unwind certain BRI projects introduced under former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom.
Meanwhile, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) faces challenges as Pakistan grapples with a balance-of-payments crisis. In response to mounting debts owed to China, Pakistan sought significant loans from Saudi Arabia, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and China in 2018.
Implications for the United States
The BRI’s expansion into Central Asia and Europe challenges U.S. interests and influence in these regions:
- Economic Competition: China’s economic investments in BRI countries offer an alternative to U.S. economic engagement. This competition could limit Washington’s influence in these regions.
- Geopolitical Competition: The BRI expands China’s political and strategic influence, potentially eroding the U.S.’s role as a global superpower. This competition could lead to increased geopolitical tensions.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was initially hailed as a potential game-changer for Pakistan’s economy.The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has made significant progress in recent years. The CPEC is a $62 billion project that is building a network of roads, railways, and power plants in Pakistan. Several major projects under the CPEC have been completed, including the Gwadar Port and the Karakoram Highway. The Gwadar Port is a deep-water port that is expected to boost trade and commerce between China and Pakistan. The Karakoram Highway is a high-altitude highway that connects China and Pakistan.
However, a UN report has raised concerns about its impact. The report suggests that CPEC, passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), could exacerbate geopolitical tensions in the region, particularly with India. To address this, it is essential for China to engage India in the BRI.
Additionally, CPEC has the potential to fuel separatist movements in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and faces challenges due to social and environmental concerns, including widespread displacement of local communities. Instability in Afghanistan could also affect the viability of CPEC. The report says that CPEC could fuel separatist movement in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. In Balochistan, there are concerns that migrants from other regions of Pakistan will render ethnic Baloch a minority in the province,” it said.
Sri Lanka and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
Sri Lanka occupies a strategically vital position in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The port of Hambantota is of particular significance for China’s energy security since a substantial portion of China’s oil imports transits through shipping lanes in proximity to this port. However, Sri Lanka faces substantial debt challenges, with its debt-to-GDP ratio standing at 81.6%, which ranks among the highest among emerging economies. In 2018, Sri Lanka’s debt burden amounted to $13 billion, while government revenues were expected to be just $14 billion.
Debt Challenges and Sovereignty Concerns
Sri Lanka’s experience with China’s involvement in its infrastructure development has raised concerns about sovereignty. President Maithripala Sirisena attempted to renegotiate the repayment schedule for Colombo’s debt to China. In response, China sought a long-term lease on a major port in exchange for debt forgiveness. This arrangement has sparked debate about the extent to which Sri Lanka’s sovereignty may be compromised in the process. China’s strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean through such initiatives has drawn attention and scrutiny from regional actors and global powers alike.
Implications for India
India has consistently maintained its stance of not participating in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This decision is grounded in India’s concerns that the BRI does not provide a level playing field for its businesses. A key point of contention is that China is funding projects in areas that are subject to territorial disputes between India and Pakistan.
India views the BRI with skepticism due to territorial disputes with China and concerns over Beijing’s growing influence in South Asia. India’s exclusion from the project also raises concerns about its economic isolation in the region.
- Territorial Disputes: The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship BRI project, passes through the Pakistan-administered territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, which India claims as part of its territory. This exacerbates tensions between India and China.
- Economic Isolation: India’s refusal to join the BRI limits its access to the economic opportunities and connectivity the project offers, potentially isolating it from regional economic networks.
In response to China’s expanding influence in the region through the BRI, India has forged partnerships with other nations to counterbalance this trend. Notably, India has joined forces with Japan and Sri Lanka to collaborate on the expansion of the Colombo port. This initiative reflects India’s strategic efforts to address China’s growing presence in its neighborhood while safeguarding its own interests.
Competition with other Intitiatives
China’s Silk Road plans also compete with other regional strategies, particularly the Russia-initiated Eurasian Economic Union and the U.S.-initiated Silk Road Initiative. The Trump administration, backed by bipartisan support in Congress, sought to counter the BRI with the BUILD Act. This legislative move consolidated the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and components of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) into a separate agency boasting a $60 billion investment portfolio, reflecting ongoing geopolitical competition surrounding the BRI. These developments underscore the diverse reactions and complexities that arise in response to China’s ambitious global infrastructure initiative.
India’s Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC)
India has launched the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) in collaboration with Japan. This initiative aims to develop quality infrastructure in Africa, complemented by digital connectivity. AAGC consists of four main components: development and cooperation projects, quality infrastructure and institutional connectivity, capacity and skill enhancement, and people-to-people partnerships. Japan is expected to join India in expanding Iran’s Chabahar port, developing Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee port, and working on the Dawei port along the Thai-Myanmar border.
G7 led by US to compete with Chinese Belt and Road
In June 2021, the G7, comprised of the world’s seven wealthiest economies, took a significant step in addressing the global infrastructure challenge by endorsing the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative, spearheaded by United States President Joe Biden. This ambitious plan is positioned as a formidable rival to China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The B3W aims to establish a transparent infrastructure partnership geared towards assisting developing nations in bridging the staggering $40 trillion infrastructure gap projected by 2035. The initiative addresses a longstanding void in the West, offering a positive alternative to what has been criticized as the “lack of transparency, poor environmental and labor standards, and coercive approach” associated with the Chinese government’s BRI, which has left many nations burdened.
The B3W plan, collaboratively devised by the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and Italy, outlines a commitment to channeling hundreds of billions of dollars, in cooperation with the private sector, while adhering to stringent climate and labor standards. Moreover, the B3W seeks to mobilize private-sector investments in critical areas such as climate resilience, healthcare, digital technology, and gender equity, thereby expanding its scope far beyond traditional infrastructure. In essence, the B3W initiative has been strategically designed to compete with President Xi Jinping’s BRI, which has faced criticism for accumulating significant debt burdens for participating nations and exposing them to undue influence from Beijing. This development reflects a new era of global infrastructure collaboration and competition aimed at addressing pressing challenges while upholding higher standards of transparency, sustainability, and equity.
The Growing Military Dimension
However, beyond its economic objectives, the BRI has taken on a military dimension that raises concerns among several countries and geopolitical experts. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also carries significant geostrategic and military motives, which have evolved in light of recent developments. Some experts argue that the BRI represents a clear expression of China’s power ambitions in the 21st century, with the ultimate goal of reshaping the global geopolitical balance of power. Japan’s 2019 Defense White Paper highlighted the concern that BRI infrastructure projects are facilitating the expansion of the PLA into the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Africa,
Civil-military fusion has been advanced through a series of laws, regulations, and reforms that ensure civilian resources can be deployed to support the military. But civil-military fusion is more than an aspiration for China; it is the law. Multiple pieces of legislation contain provisions promoting if not mandating interoperability between civilian and military projects. Chinese-made civilian infrastructure projects, by law, must now conform to military specifications. Overseas projects, such as the BRI, are not excluded from this mandate
Beijing, however, has gone to great lengths to avoid connecting the BRI with its defense goals. Only in 2019 did China’s defense minister explicitly refer to the BRI in an address to an overseas audience, saying merely that the Chinese military would pursue friendly cooperation with foreign militaries “in the framework of the BRI.
Several key factors contribute to this growing military aspect:
Dual-Use Infrastructure: Many of the infrastructure projects funded by China under the BRI serve dual purposes. For instance, ports that are developed for commercial purposes can easily be converted to naval bases, granting China strategic military access to key maritime chokepoints. A key aspect of these military motives is the strategic importance of providing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with access to a series of ports spanning from the South China Sea to Africa’s East Coast, enhancing China’s naval presence and influence in crucial maritime regions. Particular suspicion has accrued to seemingly overbuilt but underutilized ports along important Indian Ocean trade routes that appear more suitable as potential naval bases than as commercial operations.
Securing Sea Lanes: The maritime component of the BRI, often referred to as the “Maritime Silk Road,” involves constructing and upgrading ports and shipping lanes. This not only facilitates trade but also strengthens China’s ability to secure vital sea lanes for its energy and trade routes. A central objective for China is to connect its landlocked western region to the port at Gwadar, which holds immense significance. This connection would enable ships transporting oil and other commodities from the Persian Gulf to bypass the congested Strait of Malacca, significantly shortening existing routes frequently patrolled by foreign navies and reducing the vulnerability of these vital sea lanes.
More broadly, nearly 40 percent of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from foreign trade and well over 60 percent of that moves by sea. With increasing reliance on SLOCs to transport energy supplies and goods, Beijing has an understandable concern about the vulnerability of maritime supply lines. Planners are alert to the risk that key straits could become strategic chokepoints. With the mission to defend overseas interests and protect SLOCs primarily falling on the navy, in 2018, South Sea Fleet Commander Wang Hai stated that we “must closely coordinate with the Belt and Road Initiative, use multiple means to safeguard the security of strategic sea lanes in the region, and ensure that strategic capabilities can extend and radiate wherever China’s interests develop.
String of Pearls: China’s strategic investments in ports across the Indian Ocean, commonly known as the “String of Pearls,” provide Beijing with a network of naval and logistical facilities. This enables China to project military power in the region, potentially impacting regional stability. These warnings were reflected in two 2019 reports released by the Pentagon forecast that BRI projects will probably drive China’s overseas military basing due to a perceived need to provide security for projects abroad.
Geopolitical Influence: As China extends financial aid to nations along the BRI, it gains significant leverage over these countries. In times of geopolitical disputes or conflicts, this financial influence can translate into military support or strategic partnerships.
Technological Collaboration: The BRI encourages technological collaboration between China and partner countries. This cooperation can include military technology transfer, potentially aiding partner nations in enhancing their defense capabilities.
While Chinese senior officers have maintained that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not directly involved in BRI projects, the protection of BRI facilities overseas typically falls to host governments or an increasing number of ostensibly private Chinese paramilitary security firms. China’s new crop of private security firms employs retired PLA personnel and has other connections with the Chinese military In 2019, China’s defense minister explicitly referenced the BRI in an address to an overseas audience, indicating the military’s interest in the initiative.
However, deep suspicions surround the BRI and China’s underlying strategic intentions. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expressed concerns that BRI-driven connectivity could undermine the sovereignty of other states. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has accused China of leveraging its overseas investments to pressure other nations into suboptimal security decisions. Admiral Philip Davidson of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has characterized the BRI as a “stalking horse” to advance Chinese security interests. Japan’s 2019 Defense White Paper has highlighted concerns that BRI infrastructure projects facilitate the expansion of the PLA into the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Africa, and Europe. These geopolitical and military considerations underscore the complexity and far-reaching implications of the BRI on global security dynamics.
Beijing’s $1 trillion New Silk Road project, the Belt and Road Initiative, is reshaping the geostrategic landscape in Central Asia and Europe. While it brings economic development and connectivity to participating countries, it also raises concerns about China’s growing influence, debt dependency, and potential security risks.
The BRI challenges the United States’ and India’s interests and influence in these regions, making it a focal point of geostrategic competition in the 21st century. Balancing economic opportunities with geopolitical risks will be a key challenge for nations involved in or affected by the BRI.
Despite strained US-Russia relations, China currently holds the upper hand in global infrastructure initiatives due to its financial clout and resources compared to other competitors.
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