China is gearing up to celebrate the decade anniversary of what has been called the most ambitious geopolitical project of the century, just a year after President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative. The initiative, which was first instituted in September and October 2013, was designed to enhance connectivity, trade, and cultural exchange along routes that were loosely inspired by the ancient Silk Road-no small task.
But dig a little deeper, and the numbers start to get strange. Why can't anyone agree on the total amount of money in a given year? Why isn't there any official list of BRI countries?
No one of this is to say the BRI hasn't been impactful. By some metrics, Chinese projects havepoured more than $1 trillion into addressing global infrastructure gaps faster and with less bureaucracy than their western counterparts,building up valuable overseas experience for Chinese firms and banks, and providing an undisputable wake-up call on the scale of Chinese ambitions.
But, 10 years on, it remains impossible to pin down exactly what constitutes the BRI.
It's in large part because the BRI was never exactly what observers thought it was. The BRI is more branding exercise than masterplan - a fragmented and often inexperienced range of actors, juggling commercial and political incentives.
As Xi called for China to release the growth potential of various countries, everyone from gargantuan state-owned enterprises to plucky private companies jumped on the BRI bandwagon. In many African nations, including Angola and Ethiopia, lending from Chinese companies had already peaked before the Chinese government caught up with the flow of capital and signed official BRI memorandums of understanding in 2018, when pre-existing projects were proudly rebranded as BRI ventures. As BRI brand became a pawn in unlocking financing, there was no official definition of a BRI project. Both at home and abroad, then, the BRI must surely go down as one of this century's most successful policy branding exercises.
But of course, the wide variety of Chinese spending has also come with its own advantages and drawbacks. In some cases, inexperienced or unaccountable Chinese companies have caused environmental damage, while China's 'whole industry chain export' model, in which everything from feasibility studies to post-completion maintenance is provided by Chinese contractors, has limited economic benefits and skills-transfer in local communities. While largely debunked, the idea of 'debt-trap diplomacy' in which China lures poor nations into unsustainable debt still dominates U.S. and European discussions.
Beijing cannot afford the next 10 years of the BRI to look the same. The first problem is that there's just less money to do about what's going on. With the COVID economic downturn, there's no longer the chance to channel excess capacity and capital into projects abroad due to the decline in business confidence in China. As China continues to promote itself as a champion of the Global South, poorly thought-out BRI projects run counter to the overall national interest.
The advantage of being a brand, however, is that there's an inherent flexibility to the BRI. Go forward, quality not quantity will be the steer-or, in Chinese policy speak, but making the BRI leanner isn't enough on its own to set China up for a new era of global outreach.
The Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative are just a few of the new flagship initiatives that the government is pursuing, aiming to add some conceptual backbone to a more globally engaged China.
If the BRI was first about economics and then about geopolitics, these three initiatives seem to have flipped the equation. The process, which is more centrally controlled than the BRI, aims to share China's development, security, and cultural prowess with the world and, possibly more importantly, establish consensus on China's preferred norms in the process.
The United Nations' Global Development Initiative, for example, is a UN agency that devotes billions to assisting developing nations meet the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals. The initiative aims to strengthen an alternative understanding of development that focuses on economic security, civil and political rights first, before focusing on economic security.
While the Global Security Initiative is currently light on specifics, it seeks to bring countries together with Beijing's vision of a secure environment ruled by mutual non-interference.
The Global Civilization Initiative, the newest of the three, will aim to advocate respect for the diversity of civilizations - rejecting the idea of 'universal values' that Beijing sees as fundamentally western.
If these sound vague, then that's by design. The BRI has been the slogan of Chinese policy initiatives for a number of years, including the BRI 10 years ago. But the trio of initiatives took pride of place, ahead of the BRI, in Xi's all-important work report at the last year's Party Congress, a clear sign to China's ultra-responsive policy apparatus to get focused on fleshing them out.
Together, they speak to a growing confidence that China's model has something to offer the world, and also a growing anxiety that the West, or at least the U.S., could be turning irrevocably hostile to China.
As in the early days of BRI, we are likely to see a learning process as China ventures into areas beyond its traditional remit. And, much like before, there are certain missteps along the way. As China begins taking diplomatic deals over the Iran-Sudi border, providing training in China to thousands of African law enforcement officials, and running human resources courses for more than 50 countries, it's clear that China is serious about evolving the ways it interacts with the world.
It's worth taking the confusion of BRI's past decade as a cautionary tale. The political and institution groundwork is being laid to ensure that the new global initiatives will be a core part of China's diplomatic framework over the next decade. For far too long, the BRI was misunderstood, and when it comes to positioning themselves for a new era of Chinese foreign policy, countries shouldn't make the same mistake again.