The Belt and Road Initiative: Progress, Problems and Prospects

Part of Chapter 9 | Infrastructure

Fang Jin
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It has been nearly three years since Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the autumn of 2013. A lot of progress has been made thus far.

First, a consensus has been reached at the governmental level with a large number of countries. President Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang introduced the idea, framework, and approaches during their official visits to many countries along the Belt and Road. By the end of 2016, more than 100 countries had expressed their support for and willingness to participate in the building of the BRI project, and 39 countries and international organizations have signed 46 agreements with China for this.1

Second, on the practical level, major progress has been made on improving infrastructure connectivity in that many projects on the construction of railways, energy pipelines, and electricity have been initiated or implemented.

Third, multiple frameworks of financing mechanisms have formed to provide support for the BRI. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund are operational. The RMB was successfully integrated into the Special Drawing Right (SDR) basket.

Fourth, on international production cooperation, China has signed dozens of bilateral agreements with other countries, including Kazakhstan.

Despite these achievements and progress, we should not neglect the problems during the implementation of the BRI. For example, the implementation of some projects was too hasty, without sufficient consideration of their long-term economic benefits. On many occasions the projects rely too much on the support of governments and policies. Another extreme is sometimes the implementing agencies put too much emphasis on the benefits of the BRI for China itself, especially only calculating the narrow interests of businesses without considering the concerns of local governments, communities, and companies. Furthermore, some countries are positive about the BRI but not willing to make their own contributions. They take for granted that China should pay for most of the cost since it is very enthusiastic in promoting the BRI and must benefit enormously from it. Lastly, there is no lack of suspicion, resistance, and even public criticism in the international community toward the BRI, including those countries along the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and some regional powers.

There may be several reasons behind those suspicions. On the one hand, China has not been effective in conducting external communication about the BRI and its implementation approach in the early stage. As there are one thousand versions of Hamlets in one thousand hearts, there are many interpretations and understandings about the BRI, which are very confusing for international community. There are various stakeholders relevant to the implementation of the BRI; however, China has mostly been engaging with the government bodies without paying sufficient attention to the concerns of businesses, civil society organizations, and local communities. This issue was best illustrated by China’s engagement with Myanmar.

Therefore, the most important issue for China in the next step is to conduct a better analysis of the interests of various stakeholders, including itself. Based on this analysis, more targeted communication can be made for more well-aligned strategies and policies for the effective implementation of the BRI. Considering the increasingly complicated challenges we face and the lagging of the reform of international institutions, the first step for China should be working toward a community of common interest before talking about building a community of common destiny. Through this frank communication about each other’s interests and concerns, China can better convey its message to neighboring countries and persuade them of the mutual benefits of cooperation. The community of common interest can further develop into a community of responsibility in that various stakeholders should contribute their share and take advantage of their advantages for common interests. Only when the two steps are achieved will the building of a common destiny community be feasible.

Specifically, China needs to deal with the following questions. First, it should not avoid talking about its own interests. As a reflection of traditional culture, Chinese people are shy in talking about interests. On the other hand, they tend to talk in big but empty words and theories, which, however, lead others to think they are not reliable. The neighboring countries are even more of the opinion that China must have hidden the huge interests it can gain from the BRI. The BRI China launched was well-thought and would certainly benefit China in terms of economic development, industrial upgrading and transformation, RMB internationalization, and regional integration among other things. This is not only very natural but also legitimate. But the BRI project should be first and foremost about economic development instead of other things. With the enhanced infrastructure connectivity, deepening of economic cooperation, and increasing interactions between people, better political and diplomatic relations can develop between and among countries under the BRI, which is beneficial for China and other countries involved.

Second, China should also take care of the interests of other countries along the BRI. It cannot be overstated that these emerging and developing countries have strong interests in overcoming the shortage of infrastructure and strengthening their economies. Because of this, the BRI launched by China has won an enormous response from the international community. We should pay attention to not only the interests of these countries’ governments, but also the interests of their companies, civil society organizations, as well as individuals, so as to get their support and participation in building the BRI project.

Third, the interests of countries beyond the BRI should also be taken good care of. BRI is an open project rather than a strict geographic concept. At the early stage of implementation, countries along the BRI were prioritized and may benefit more. However, the project is a public good for regional and global economic development, and therefore can also benefit countries beyond the BRI. In fact, the biggest contribution of the BRI to the world lies in the innovation of global economic governance. There are no embedded, binding decisionmaking mechanisms, or strict timelines and roadmap unilaterally set by China. All countries can voluntarily choose their own ways and approaches to joining in based on their own needs. On the contrary, the existing system was based on a set of mandatory rules and mechanisms, dominated by major powers and far from inclusive and open. This is why the United States was so reluctant in seeing China launch the AIIB. What really concerns the United States may be not the closer relations between China and countries along the BRI, but the fact that the completely different concept China introduced brought great challenges to its leadership.

How can we bring nations outside BRI to join this initiative? For example, the United States is a global power with global interests, though it hasn’t joined nor expressed its support for the BRI, its attitudes and the interaction between China and the United States can certainly exert an impact on this initiative. The stability and prosperity of the countries along the BRI are in line with both the interests of China and the United States. Many American firms have investments in these countries. They have rich experience, advanced technology, and ample funding, and we should certainly create the right conditions for cooperation among Chinese, American, and local firms.

Therefore, we should focus our attention on communication with the American public, think tanks, and media on the importance and benefits of BRI so we can build the broadest, most comprehensive, and actively participated BRI community of shared interest.

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[1] National Development and Reform Commission of the People's Republic of China, Building the Belt and Road: Concept, Practice and China's Contribution , May 2017, http://www.ndrc.gov.cn/gzdt/201705/t20170511_847228.html.