Summary by Philipp Hirsch, former Ax:son Johnson Research Assistant in Applied History

China’s “Belt-and-Road Initiative” (BRI) is Beijing’s largest and most ambitious foreign policy project in recent history. Some view it has the country’s path to global domination. Others point to its underlying weaknesses and inherent contradictions. Only this week, the Chinese foreign ministry admitted that due to the Corona-pandemic, more than 60% of BRI-projects were currently encountering a slowdown. Whether BRI is a train wreck or a strategic masterstroke was the question of this video-panel event chaired by the Centre for Geopolitic’s co-director KC Lin (Cambridge).

Eyck Freymann, author of One Belt One Road, Chinese Power Meets the World (2020), argued that one could not separate BRI from its prime architect, President Xi. It is the flagship policy of China’s president, who might well aim for life-long rule over the country. Moreover, within the country, BRI is linked to a narrative of imperial restoration and rejuvenation. In addition, the policy is the story of elite-capture abroad: Chinese aid and investments abroad serve to stabilise the reign of foreign rulers, who in turn seek closer alliance with China. Overall, Mr Fremann saw in BRI much more than a Chinese Marshall plan and rather the personal power project of a Chinese leader who wants to foster his country’s role in the arena of global politics.

A more cautious cord was struck by Jon Hillman, director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS in Washington DC, and author of The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century (2020). He did not doubt Beijing’s global ambition, but warned to overstate the uniqueness of BRI. In the 1980s, much of today’s Western rhetoric against it was directed against Japan’s economic expansion in the world. Indeed, even today Japan is outspending China in South-East Asia. China might well be accommodated in the current global order if it, similarly to Japan, learns its lessons and improves its practices. However, unlike Tokyo, Beijing does not have a strong ally in the form of the US to learn from. Overall. Mr Hillman warned from overstating the threat behind every BRI project, which often lack in economic and strategic profitability.

Finally, Theresa Fallon, founder and director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies (CREAS) in Brussels and Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, pointed to China’s ability to market itself abroad. Using a particular case study, Beijing had successfully portrayed itself as major supporter of Serbian economic strength, even though Belgrade receives much more economic and financial support from Brussels. More generally, Ms Fallon criticized the EU for being slow and indecisive in its policy towards China. She illustrated how BRI was expanding from trade and services into other areas such as digital technology. If anything, we should expect BRI to become more important and stay with us for a foreseeable future.

The Q&A circled around the health dimension of BRI and Chinese ‘vaccine diplomacy’, as well as the geopolitical dimension of the question. Whether one stresses the strategic brilliance or frailty of the BRI project, all speakers agreed that Beijing would continue to pursue it as a policy. We can expect to hear more about BRI, and certainly the Centre for Geopolitics will keep its focus on it.


Expert Analysis

A public vote of no-confidence for South Korea’s President Yoon

Expert Analysis

High stakes at low tide: The Second Thomas Shoal in context

Event Review

Event review: Japanese diplomacy – the power of influence