Unpacking the Belt and Road Initiative: What Is It and Where Is It Going?

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s mammoth and globe-girdling infrastructure and trade corridor project, represents one of those rare watershed developments for international affairs—something so big and consequential that it is impossible to ignore, no matter where in the world one might be sitting.

The scale alone is extraordinary. According to some estimates, BRI boasts the potential to involve more than 60 countries, nearly 4.5 billion people, and around 40% of the economy, and to be 12 times as large in absolute dollar terms as the Marshall Plan. More broadly, this is a case of the word’s likely next superpower endeavoring to build one of the biggest and most expensive superprojects the world has ever seen.

[BRI] represents one of the most concrete indications of Beijing’s deepening influence and presence around the world.

For the Trump administration, BRI is something to be regarded with concern. And that’s because it represents one of the most concrete indications of Beijing’s deepening influence and presence around the world. This expanding global reach is of particular concern for Washington because the Trump administration regards Beijing as its greatest strategic rival—and as a national security threat. When the Trump administration released its first national security strategy, at the end of 2017, that document described strategic rivalry, and not terrorism, as America’s top national security threat.

BRI was a major motivating factor leading to the implementation of the Trump administration’s new Indo Pacific strategy—an initiative, much like the Obama administration’s Asia rebalance policy, that redoubles U.S. attention and resources to Asia and that seeks to promote free trade and a rules-based order in that region. Several American allies in Asia—including most recently South Korea—have come out with similar policies meant to engage more deeply in the Indo-Pacific, and by extension to respond to the BRI phenomenon.

BRI was the subject of a recent conference at King’s College in London jointly hosted by the Wilson Center’s Asia Program and the London-based Royal Society for Asian Affairs (RSAA). The event, held on January 7, marked the second collaboration between the two organizations, with the first coming at the Wilson Center in January 2018 with a conference on religious freedom in South Asia.

The London event highlighted some of the initial economic and strategic impacts of BRI, particularly in South and Central Asia, and sought to consider BRI’s possible future trajectory. One of the more striking takeaways from the conference was that despite the hype and hoopla that accompany BRI, there’s still much that’s not known about the initiative: What is it meant to be, what are its goals, and what does its future look like? One reason why these questions are difficult to answer at this stage is that the project remains in its relatively incipient stages—it is, as one conference speaker put it, still a baby.

As several speakers acknowledged, there’s no guarantee that BRI will survive.

Another major theme at the conference revolved around the issue of BRI’s survivability. Conference speakers discussed some of its major challenges, from security concerns in key regions of investment to potentially unsustainable financing rooted in the practice of sending large quantities of loans to impoverished countries, thereby heavily indebting nations that already struggle to pay their bills. As several speakers acknowledged, there’s no guarantee that BRI will survive.

Video of the conference’s morning session can be seen here and the afternoon session here.

All of the papers presented at the conference will be published later this year in a special issue of Asian Affairs, the flagship journal of RSAA (the papers from last year’s conference were published in the same journal and can be read here).

Follow Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia, on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2018, Asia Program. All rights reserved.