Andreea Brinza | 15 November 2023 What is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? As easy as it is to ask, as hard it is
What is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? As easy as it is to ask, as hard it is to define. Ten years after the first seeds of this idea were sown in Astana and Jakarta, the answer might seem simple – an infrastructure strategy or mega-project. But, believe it or not, the BRI is more than infrastructure: it is a brand for China’s foreign affairs and an umbrella for almost any Chinese investments and actions abroad or what I called a branding strategy for China’s foreign policy.
While you may have heard about the BRI projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Mombasa-Nairobi railway or the Budapest-Belgrade railway, there is also the Belt and Road Potato Network, which proposed the creation of a “Belt and Road” International Potato Germplasm Resource Bank, or the Belt and Road Film Week. And these are just a few of the innovative uses of the BRI brand. While the BRI name was used for a multitude of infrastructure projects, from the start, according to Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese government, it was meant to also include policy coordination, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people relations. But neither Xi Jinping nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China really made an effort to define the BRI. They only pointed toward the ideas that support the BRI framework, without too much precision or attention given to the structural details of the BRI. Because of this, the Belt and Road Initiative became many things, both for Western but also for Chinese observers.
At the beginning, soon after Xi’s first speech in Kazakhstan, in 2013, the BRI was perceived mainly as an infrastructure project, because that was what the image of a New Silk Road implied. That Xi talked about establishing an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in his speech in Jakarta, when he barely dedicated a sentence to “the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century” which will later become part of the BRI, strengthened the infrastructure narrative. And the narrative was further promoted by a BRI map launched by Xinhua, but also because attaching the BRI brand to infrastructure projects or investments there were already proposed or even ongoing was the easiest way to jumpstart the initiative – far simpler than policy coordination or financial integration. The “hard” part of infrastructure development was easier to see than the “soft” part of countless conferences, meetings, seminars, networks or other uses of the term in various fields. It didn’t take long for Western observers to flatteringly compare the BRI with the Marshall Plan, a comparison that was ironically rejected by the Chinese side, which saw it as demeaning.
While the narrative surrounding the BRI in the West was generally positive in the first years, as US-China relations deteriorated and US criticism of Beijing intensified, the lens through which the BRI was seen also changed. The infrastructure perspective gave way to accusations of debt trap diplomacy, imperialism, geopolitical ambitions or neo-colonialism. In general, the BRI came to be seen as a master plan for China to reach its geopolitical goals and maybe even for a new world order.
But how accurate are these definitions? While, at first, defining the BRI as only an infrastructure development strategy was too superficial, ignoring its many other facets, seeing it later as a geopolitical master plan for domination gave it a meaning, vision and coherence it never had. Even as a more limited strategy of “debt traps”, the BRI doesn’t live up to the accusation, as there are few examples that can support this narrative, which was engendered by the case of the Port of Hambantota, a project that predated the BRI and whose first phase was completed before Xi even became president – and also a case better explained by mismanagement, corruption and lack of foresight than by the long-term vision of setting up a stealthy debt trap for unsuspecting governments.
So, then what is the BRI? In fact, over the past decade, the BRI has been more a name given to Chinese foreign policy, attached to a hodgepodge of initiatives, activities, investments and projects, especially in the first years after its appearance, when the brand still caried value and a positive connotation.
The BRI wasn’t born as a grand strategy or a coherent vision, but as an exercise in rhetoric centered on the positive connotations of the Silk Road and of “recreating” it. From this point of view, of the BRI as a branding strategy for China’s foreign affairs, the initiative presents itself as a newer member of the myriad of slogans used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) both internally, to legitimize its power, but also externally, to project a certain image to the world. Slogans or concepts such as the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, One Country, Two Systems, peaceful reunification, peaceful rise, or a community with a shared future for mankind, have been used by the CCP to present a preferred narrative to, sometimes targeted, external audiences, thus shaping positive perceptions of China and its external policies. The New Silk Road, later morphed into the Belt and Road Initiative, was part of this pattern and it initially was quite successful in its intended purpose – that of creating a positive image for China, by creating a narrative that China can help develop the world and represents the future center of the world economy.
The initial success of the brand is easy to see in the multitude of initiatives China created around the Silk Road brand, grouped under the BRI umbrella: the Digital Silk Road, the Arctic Silk Road, the Health Silk Road, the Air Silk Road or the Space Silk Road. Anything can become a road, when the time is right. But a road to where? Even the geographic scope of the BRI wasn’t well defined, but vague and ever-evolving. If it started as an initiative dedicated to its neighboring countries, it later became a Eurasian initiative, expanded to Africa, then even to South America, and finally overcoming any geographical barrier once it expanded to countries in North America – if you define North America as more than NAFTA.
But the irony is that you can go to dozens of countries that are considered part of the BRI, because of a memorandum of understanding their governments signed with China, and you will not find a single infrastructure project bearing the BRI brand. What you might find, though, are investments of Chinese companies that might have had the BRI name attached in order to win goodwill, support or approvals from Beijing. Or, even more likely, learn that various citizens participated in numerous conferences, exchanges, visits, summits or spectacles organized under the BRI brand, sometimes locally but mostly in China, by Chinese organizations, institutes, think tanks, universities, companies or associations, all of which sought to use the Silk Road or BRI names.
So, while the BRI supposedly includes a very large number of countries, reaching 148 in 2023, it quickly becomes clear this number isn’t very relevant when you realize that Lithuania, a country that had an overt diplomatic conflict with China, which recalled its ambassador and demoted its diplomatic representation after Lithuania agreed to host a Taiwan Representative Office, is still a BRI member. It also becomes clear that BRI membership isn’t very relevant when you look at how non-members like Germany or the UK host more Chinese investments than almost all European BRI members combined – with the exception of Italy. But the case of Chinese investments in Italy isn’t positive for the BRI either: they declined considerably after Italy signed the BRI memorandum in 2019.
Membership in the BRI isn’t very important because the BRI isn’t an organization, or even a group. Unlike the AIIB, which China set up as an international institution and presented it as such from the start, the BRI never developed an institutional backbone. It was awarded a Belt and Road Forum, apparently, though never explicitly, meant to be biennial before the pandemic, but no institutional framework was created and participation of member states in the BRI Forum was optional. The BRI was kept at the level of bilateral ties, especially ones in a non-binding format. Even though the infrastructure perspective would create the impression that China would encourage multilateral cooperation on transnational infrastructure projects, generally such cooperation didn’t really materialize.
Thus, the Belt and Road Initiative is more of a slogan than a well-developed Chinese plan to implement its geopolitical aspirations. Behind the BRI narrative, there is China’s attempt to create the image of an important and involved great power on the global stage, whose rise contributes to global development. Moreover, when looking at the BRI as a slogan or a brand, the BRI also appeared out the necessity to create a foreign policy strategy around China’s then-new president, Xi Jinping. Indeed, the BRI has successfully been established as Xi’s initiative and contribution.
But the BRI became a label that was placed on too many Chinese projects, sometimes with negative consequences. The BRI worked only temporarily as a soft power tool that helped China improve its image around the globe. But the BRI story as a positive initiative didn’t last long. Because its evolution and features were adapted along the way according to Chinese interests, without a long-term plan, remaining a relatively vague concept, it was susceptible to reinterpretations and accusations. As its image deteriorated and the BRI started having negative connotations in some countries or to some observers, the Chinese government again adapted it to its interests and stopped promoting it as obsessively as before. Since 2021, its central place in China’s foreign policy discourse was taken by other slogan-initiatives like the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI). Thus, Chinese leaders gradually decreased the number of their BRI mentions in their speeches, no longer promoting it as vigorously but neither fully abandoning it – leaving it in a state of suspension, to be reawakened when needed, as seems to be the case with the upcoming, third, Belt and Road Forum. Like in the case of the failing cooperation format between China and Central and Eastern European countries known, over the years, as the 16+1, the 17+1 and now the 14+1 mechanism, China isn’t very keen in accepting the failure of some of its initiatives and instead of renouncing an initiative for good, its leaders prefer to reduce their mentions of it and get it out of the spotlight but not out of business.
Thus, the BRI is a package of many ideas or projects and should be understood, researched and defined beyond the “1 trillion mega-infrastructure strategy” narrative, or those of a Marshall Plan, a debt trap, a geopolitical grand plan or an imperialist tool. The BRI is, based on my research, a branding strategy for China’s foreign policy, though one that has been less used lately. With a presence in all areas, from the economy, to social activities, from finance to space issues, from people-to-people to intergovernmental relations, the BRI transcends the infrastructure label, even though this perspective received most attention, seen even in the way the West chose to relate to the BRI, by launching competing infrastructure projects, strategies and initiatives. In creating the narratives surrounding the BRI, China only took advantage of a wave of interest and enthusiasm generated by the idea of reconstructing the old Silk Road to create a brand of foreign affairs. This brand developed around historical notions offered legitimacy, an image of greatness and the idea of unity for the BRI which transformed it into the mega-project of the century.
Now, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of BRI, taking a look at all the ways the initiative has evolved and manifested itself throughout the decade, it is a good idea to revisit what the BRI really is. The BRI is more a slogan, a trope and, ultimately, a branding strategy for China’s foreign policy and should be seen through these or similar perspectives. The great achievement of the BRI isn’t the infrastructure projects developed under its umbrella, most of which would have been implemented anyway, but the global brand awareness and aura build around the Belt and Road brand – regardless of whether the attention came from critics or supporters.
Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.
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