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China’s Belt and Road Initiative Motives, Scope, and Challenges

Published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics
Edited by Simeon Djankov and Sean Miner

For more than 2,000 years, China’s commercial ties with the outside world have been symbolized by the ancient Silk Road, which began as a tortuous trading network of mountain paths and sea routes that provided a lifeline for the Chinese economy. Now the leadership in Beijing is reviving the concept with an enormously ambitious plan to build and upgrade highways, railways, ports, and other infrastructure throughout Asia and Europe designed to enrich the economies of China and some 60 of its nearby trading partners. The potentially multitrillion dollar scheme, which Beijing calls the Belt and Road Initiative, has generated enthusiasm and high hopes but also skepticism and wariness throughout the region and in capitals across the world.
What are the motivations for China’s oddly and perhaps illogically titled initiative? (The “belt” refers to the land portion of the silk route—the Silk Road Economic Belt—and the “road” refers to the Maritime Silk Road.) Is China’s goal to serve as the altruistic equivalent of the US Marshall Plan, the massive post–World War II reconstruction of Europe by the United States? Or is it a plan to cement Chinese leadership and perhaps even hegemony in competition with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the recently signed trade pact involving the United States, Japan, and 10 other countries on the Pacific Rim? One conclusion is certain, the world is paying attention when one country embarks on an elaborate effort to dramatically upgrade the infrastructure serving three-fourths of the world’s population, increasing their mutual economic dependence on China and each other. As big as China’s ambitions are, many obstacles stand in the way. If successful, China will be disrupting historical spheres of influence of many countries, most notably India and Russia, which regard the region as their neighborhood just as much as China regards it as its own. The record also suggests that ambitious plans to build infrastructure run into many logistical problems, from cost overruns to “bridges to nowhere” to corruption. If, on the other hand, China treads carefully, heeding warnings from history and the concerns of its neighbors, and transforms its initiative into a participatory exercise rather than a solo act, the whole world can benefit.
In this volume of essays edited by Sean Miner and Simeon Djankov, PIIE experts analyze the Belt and Road Initiative’s prospects, the challenges it poses, and China’s goal of furthering its economic, political, security, and development interests. They draw on lessons from past initiatives by multilateral development banks and the experience of the United States and United Kingdom in undertaking grand infrastructure projects. The authors find that the initiative presents both opportunities and risks for the United States, China’s neighbors, and the rest of the world.
Djankov assesses China’s true motivations behind this grand initiative. Miner analyzes the economic and political implications and the steps China can take to broaden the initiative’s benefits. Edwin Truman argues that China faces challenges in the way it governs the initiative and that it should redefine its role in multilateral development banks. Robert Z. Lawrence and Fredrick Toohey draw on historical examples to show that such initiatives must be complemented with institutional reforms and policies in countries where the projects are located. Otherwise pressure from profit-oriented firms can rapidly lead recipient countries into quicksand. Cullen S. Hendrix looks at the security implications and whether encroaching on India’s borders and Russia’s self-defined sphere of influence will cause China more harm than good. Finally, Djankov assesses how the initiative may affect the former Soviet Bloc countries, concluding that success will depend on China’s efforts to blend its goals with those of the governments there.
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