Chinese plan for new Silk Road drives unease in West

Paul Gillespie: Belt and Road initiative a potential pivot of geopolitical change

Chinese president Xi Jinping speaks at a news conference at the end of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Photograph: Jason Lee/EPA

Geopolitics as the geography of political power in a changing world is making a comeback. China’s future path as a world power is a central issue among these changes. The recent forum on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Beijing illustrates that.

The BRI is alternatively known as the One Belt One Road initiative but official Chinese usage now prefers the former title. It is a colossal plan to open up land links between China and Europe through central and west Asia, Iran, Turkey, the Levant and the Balkans. Alongside that will be a maritime route through the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, African ports, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

It all recalls the ancient Silk Road linking China and Europe, an association frequently used in recent publicity. That came into being during the westward expansion of China’s Han dynasty (206BC-220AD), which forged trade networks throughout what are today Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan, as well as modern-day Pakistan and India to the south. Those routes eventually extended more than 4,000 miles to Europe.

Bilateral deals

The forum brought together 110 countries, represented by 30 heads of state and 60 ministerial representatives from the countries directly and indirectly involved. Many bilateral deals were announced, as was over $130 billion additional Chinese investment in these huge infrastructural projects. They range from roads, pipelines, bridges, telecommunications cables and high-speed railways to new shipping ports and lanes and the naval facilities to protect them.


Most European states attended, but not the European Union, because of reservations about the initiative’s preference for bilateral deals over multilateral ones, its opacity and Sinocentric economics. Japan and the United States also have reservations, as has India, which regards the BRI as a neocolonial venture favouring Pakistan. These reservations are couched in economic terms but are also geopolitical.

The BRI is clearly an assertion of Chinese wealth and power and it comes after the period of phenomenal growth that saw its output jump eightfold and lifted 700 million people out of basic poverty. When this growth was maturing 10 years ago the Chinese leadership was already debating what comes next. Was their country to encounter two major traps: that of middle-income powers unable to break through to the higher income group because of economic constraints; and that first identified by the Greek historian Thucydides when he wrote: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”? The reference now is to the US and whether it can manage China’s growth of power peacefully.

The two potential traps have been central preoccupations of the communist party leader Xi Jinping in his rise to power and exercise of it since 2012. Confronted with the maturing economic achievement of export growth based on state and foreign investment a way had to be found to use the surplus capacity built up in infrastructural and financial resources which could no longer find fully productive use in China itself.

Pivot to Asia

This coincided with Barack Obama’s pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan and his “pivot to Asia”, partly to balance Chinese power. Rather than be hemmed in to the east it made sense to Xi and his principal advisers such as Wang Huning to “march west”. That would open up the huge Eurasian region to Chinese investment while simultaneously bringing development and security to unstable regimes and create an alternative land and marine route away from a solely Pacific focus.

Thus has the BRI become the centrepiece of Xi’s rule. Its success would guarantee that China becomes a middle-income power by 2021, the communist party’s 100th anniversary year, and by 2049 a wealthy one, 100 years on from the revolution that brought it to power.

To make that happen would involve going beyond affirmations of mutual advantage to actually practising it with all these partner states. The various criticisms made about the BRI centre on how much it revolves around China’s own concerns, projects Chinese power and lacks real reciprocity.

Although China’s own narrative stresses the developmental and bilateral aspects of the initiative, there are continuing worries about its financial reliance on Chinese investments, the levels of control exercised by Chinese authorities and the lack of clarity about its strategy as a whole.

Chinese spokespeople play down the geopolitical and geostrategic aspects of the initiative. But these are not good reasons for others to shun what clearly has a huge potential for positive change if engaged with constructively.