The narrative of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as spanning over 65 countries and gathering 62 percent of the world population, 31 percent of its GDP, and 40 percent of global land area should once and for all disappear now that China has announced the extension of the BRI to Latin America.
Ever since Xi Jinping put forward China’s attempt to recreate the old Silk Road in 2013, observers have considered the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to be a project spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa, encompassing around 65 countries that have signed up for it. The two corridors that form the BRI, the Silk Road Economic Belt (the Belt) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the Road), were perceived as two routes that will stretch over Eurasia or the maritime rimland, respectively, to link China with Europe.
But the Belt and Road Initiative has been plagued by misconceptions ever since its unveiling. Most foreign observes have failed to grasp the complexity of the BRI, but the Chinese government also bears part of the blame, having failed to articulate a clear strategy from the beginning and building it up along the way. In 2014, Xinhua, China’s official press agency, presented a map of the BRI, picturing it as two parallel routes: one maritime and the other one by land. This created the impression that the initiative was made up of two routes connecting China and Europe. Another misconception was that the BRI is an infrastructure project focused on building railways, highways, pipelines, or ports. Both readings were simplistic.
The BRI is not a route, but a smart power strategy (a combination between cultural power and economic power) which aims to wrap the entire world, not only Eurasia and Africa, and which has become the leitmotif of China’s foreign policy. The BRI combines hard power elements, like economic investments, with a soft power strategy, like promoting Chinese culture or improving China’s image, to create an international label for Chinese foreign policy.
In the past three years, the BRI has become a branding strategy, having expanded into every conceivable field: infrastructure, finance, culture, education, people-to-people relations, and political relations between states. The Chinese government, provincial governments, and Chinese companies don’t waste any opportunity to brand a project or an investment as being part of the Belt and Road Initiative, therefore transforming the BRI into a catch-all brand that shines a positive light on China. The Belt and Road and the larger Silk Road concept have become a strategy to position and present China as a global and responsible power that wants to help the entire world through its economic development and foreign investment, thus increasing its political capital and its influence.
The Belt and Road has also stopped being a simple regional project. While China has repeatedly presented it as an initiative for Asia, Europe, and Africa, which is also the way most Western observers perceive it, in 2017 the BRI went truly global. When Beijing organized the first ever Belt and Road Summit in May, among the heads of state in attendance were Argentinian President Mauricio Macri and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. What were Latin American presidents doing at a forum ostensibly about Eurasia? It was just the first step in China’s attempt to extend the Belt and Road Initiative to the Americas. It was also an opportunity to show that the BRI wasn’t limited to infrastructure, but was in fact a smart power strategy, aimed at attracting worldwide goodwill for China.
Another sign that the Belt and Road had arrived in Latin America came over the summer. The Chinese government managed to convince Panama to abandon its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province, and establish relations with the People’s Republic. Soon afterwards, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, paid a visit to Panama to strengthen the newly established ties. Rewarding Panama’s decision to establish diplomatic relations, Wang Yi spoke about including Latin America into the Belt and Road Initiative, calling it “a natural extension,” in which Panama could play “a unique and significant role.”