For reasons having to do with the day job, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been reading up on geoeconomics in general and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in particular. Belt and Road just started its sixth year with a big honking conference of participants.
BRI has inspired a lot of takes in the foreign policy community about What It All Means. As a public service, I thought it would be a good idea to categorize them. BRI takes can be divided into three camps:
CAMP 1: #OMGChina! The members of this camp believe that China can do no wrong. They therefore look at Belt and Road and see it as a brilliant coherent plan of quasi-coercive economic statecraft that ensnares all its participants into a Chinese web of influence.
As it turns out, an awful lot of official U.S. actors fall into this camp. Both the 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy reference China’s economic statecraft. The Defense Department’s 2018 report on China’s military power warns that the BRI “is intended to develop strong economic ties with other countries, shape their interests to align with China’s, and deter confrontation or criticism of China’s approach to sensitive issues.”
It’s not just official actors. The Council on Foreign Relations describes BRI as “the most ambitious infrastructure investment effort in history” and “an unsettling extension of China’s rising power.” Most of the writers in this camp uses phrases like “debt trap diplomacy” and point to China’s newfound control over Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka as a result of that country’s failure to pay as the paradigmatic example.
CAMP 2: BRI blowback. This camp, which consists of an awful lot of China watchers, points out the myriad ways in which China’s aggressive promotion of BRI has had negative feedback effects. They point to the way that China’s entry into South Asia triggered pushback from India. They highlight the fact that even countries dependent on Chinese foreign direct investment, such as Pakistan or Malaysia, have objected to BRI terms they found rather onerous. Other observers note that BRI investments also have triggered a spike in local protests against China. Still others note that the headline figures announced as BRI investments turn out to not mean much in the actual reality.
This camp also does not think that BRI is the development of some radical alternative order. For them, the top-line figures of BRI funding are mostly a mirage. The branding of BRI has been too haphazard. The funding priorities have been at the mercy of Chinese domestic politics. This is not a recipe for creating alluring investments.
CAMP 3: BRI as a learning curve. And now we arrive at the interesting possibility. This camp thinks of BRI the same way that Americans should think about all of China’s economic statecraft: Beijing is experimenting with how to convert its resources into influence. BRI is one of those experiments. With each failed experiment Beijing learns how to do economic statecraft better.
Camp 2 is correct to point out all of the BRI screw-ups. What is interesting, however, is that Xi Jinping, the leader who coined BRI, is admitting this. According to the New York Times’s Jane Perlez, even Xi is willing to admit error: "[Xi] stressed the importance of ‘high quality’ and ‘reasonably priced’ infrastructure as the way to help developing countries and said China would follow international rules on bidding and procurement for projects. In an apparent nod to past mistakes, Mr. Xi said: ‘Everything should be done in a transparent way, and we should have zero tolerance for corruption.’ ”
Unsurprisingly, BRI is getting a new look on its sixth birthday, with the central government looking to control the brand better. If China is successful in its efforts, then Camp 3 will collapse into Camp 1. If not, Camp 2.
The question about whether China will learn from its mistakes is the known unknown about Belt and Road.