- The belt and road was not meant to be a single large infrastructure project. Rather, it provides the great machine of China’s external-facing apparatus with a new driving vision
- With no fixed goalposts, recent setbacks to projects that fall under its umbrella can be woven into the narrative of China’s march towards greater engagement with the world
Having had such a catastrophic year, the world seems eager to turn the page and jettison what went before. Among the many victims of this purge appears to be the Belt and Road Initiative, which after some seven years of existence is reportedly winding down.
This premature dismissal is based on an interpretation of a vision as a project, and misses how embedded the belt and road is in Chinese foreign-policy thinking.
The belt and road draws on a long tradition of Silk Road conceptions linked to China. Clichés abound when one thinks back to Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci, the epic Battle of Talas in 751 or Ferdinand von Richthofen, who in 1877 coined the Silk Road phrasing after his travels through Asia.
In contemporary Chinese parlance, the idea first came into focus under premier Li Peng, who in 1994 embarked on a tour of Central Asia in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s historic “Southern Tour” that started China on its communist-capitalist path.
Li’s trip was intended to take place in 1993, though he was reportedly delayed by ill health. Also, the visit did not stop in every Central Asian capital: Tajikistan, in the midst of its brutal civil war, was given a miss. Security was a key aspect of Li’s trip, and requests for support in suppressing militant Uygur networks were made at most stops. But the visit was also framed around trade and connectivity, and reopening the Silk Road across the Eurasian continent to China.
Following the trip, Li hosted a conference in Beijing where he called for rail connectivity across the region. Around that time, Chinese officials also held discussions with Japanese officials and investors about building pipelines from Turkmenistan, across China, to the eastern seaboard from where the hydrocarbons could help fuel Japan’s booming economic growth.
The Silk Road routes at the time went across China, rather than from it. Looking in the other direction, premier Li also travelled to Europe seeking business links.
So when President Xi Jinping announced his own interpretation of the Silk Road in 2013, under the framing of the Belt and Road Initiative, he was treading on familiar territory – both practically, but also conceptually. It was about building links around the world, and reaching European markets.
But ultimately, the belt and road as articulated by Xi is to provide a vision for Chinese foreign policy. There are undoubtedly many individual projects under the broader umbrella, but they are specific items rather than a connected infrastructure plan.
When Xi announced the idea, it was not meant to be the inauguration of a single large infrastructure project, but rather to provide the great machine of China’s external-facing apparatus with a new driving vision. The idea was that, from now on, China would articulate its foreign policy identity on the world stage as one built around building things, connecting with people and countries, and together fostering prosperity.
That’s a fairly anodyne and positive foreign policy vision, and one that resonates with anyone who has listened to Chinese officials’ endless win-win rhetoric.
It built on the earlier steps that Xi and his predecessors had laid, not only in terms of using Silk Road terminology, but also in focusing first on China’s immediate periphery and helping focus domestic efforts of spreading prosperity to China’s historically poorer inner territories.
Jiang Zemin had his Great Western Development strategy, and Xi built on Peking University professor Wang Jisi’s call to “March West”. All of these are tied together and projected forward with the grandeur now appropriate for a China that was on its way to being the world’s second-largest economy. Thus was born the Belt and Road Initiative.
But the key is that this was an idea rather than a project. Many infrastructure projects and corridors were immediately attributed to it, but so were innumerable non-infrastructure-related projects. Theme songs, cartoons, cultural shows, think tanks, courses and more were thrown into the mix (alongside many non-infrastructure-related economic projects).
There was a moment when you could not avoid the framing in every conversation you had in China. It was also enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s charter. Belt and road became a way of thought.
This is not only about Xi imprinting his ideas onto the nation’s history, but also creating a vision that is the central organising concept which will dominate Chinese foreign-policy thinking in the near and possibly far future.
This is also why it is not something that can fail, end or be drawn to a close. Quite aside from it being linked to a supreme leader who will not brook failure, the vision has largely artificial and unclear deadlines. While China has put a date of 2049 on achieving the belt and road, what needs to be done by then is not specified.
And even if it was, it would be in typically vague terms, meaning that whatever result has been achieved could simply be drafted into whatever the new interpretation of the Belt and Road Initiative was. Goalposts on ideas can move if they are set loosely enough.
The belt and road as a foreign policy idea is unlikely to end as long as the current leader is in power. And if it looks like it is slowing down, the vision could be reinterpreted to suit. It was never about pure aid, and it was never a single project.
It is simply Xi’s vision for how China should talk about going out into the world. Phrased like this, it has no reason to ever be completed or resolved. Unlikely to die, it will simply continue to evolve.
Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London