The Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road Initiative, is a major foreign policy priority put forth by Chinese President Xi Jinping to bring greater development and connectivity to the countries of Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The New Silk Road Initiative involves large-scale Chinese investment in infrastructure projects across Central, South, and Southeast Asia, including roads, rail, ports, pipelines, logistics, telecoms, IT, and industrial capacity. This initiative is expected to be a vital source of investment for developing countries in these regions, although questions remain about how it will be implemented successfully.
Carnegie–Tsinghua’s Paul Haenle moderated a panel of Chinese and international experts to analyze the cultural and strategic motivations behind China’s Belt and Road Initiative as well as the opportunities and challenges that the policy raises for China and the international community.
- Rooted in Chinese Cultural Values: Panelists observed that President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative evokes the ancient trade route as a symbol of shared prosperity and peaceful cooperation. One panelist pointed out that there had been discussion of reviving these trading routes since the 1980s, although the plan did not receive government support until Xi Jinping announced the official policy in the fall of 2013. Another panelist asserted that the Belt and Road Initiative reflects traditional Chinese values of harmony and peaceful coexistence, similar to the famous maritime voyages of the Ming dynasty figure, Admiral Zheng He.
- Motivations and Strategic Interests: One panelist described the initiative as China’s way of promoting shared economic prosperity and cooperation with its neighbors and advancing the concept of a community of common destiny that benefits all countries involved. Other panelists noted that the policy also aims to fulfill other Chinese objectives, such as linking with markets for its manufactured goods, transferring overcapacity in construction-related industries, internationalizing the renminbi, and using economic development to address regional security concerns.
- Large-Scale Ambitions and Investment: Participants agreed that the Belt and Road Initiative has an incredibly ambitious agenda with the potential to profoundly change the world even if it is only partially implemented. One panelist noted the plan’s massive scope—linking three continents populated by 4.4 billion people who account for a third of global GDP. As another participant pointed out, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that the initiative will deploy up to $6 trillion in investment when the resources of the China Development Bank, the China Exim Bank, and a unit of China’s sovereign wealth fund called CIC Capital are counted alongside those of the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
- Responses of Other Major Powers: The panelists agreed that the success of the Belt and Road Initiative will greatly depend on the reactions of other regional countries. Some panelists maintained that the United States welcomes Chinese infrastructure investment in Central Asia, although many in Washington remain uncertain about China’s overall strategic intentions. Associating the Belt and Road policy with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, meanwhile, has helped China mitigate Russia’s misgivings about its influence being reduced in Central Asia. Another panelist observed that India’s reaction is also mixed—an economic corridor through Bangladesh and Myanmar seems mutually beneficial, but growing Chinese investment and influence in Sri Lanka and Pakistan has raised concerns.
- A Long-Term Strategy Underway: Panelists acknowledged that despite its bold agenda, the Belt and Road Initiative will take years or even decades to be fully implemented. One participant asserted that the policy is an opportunity for China and neighboring countries to understand each other better, but he conceded that this process will be a lengthy one. Another panelist pointed out that the macroeconomic contours of the initiative will take many years to play out, especially China’s attempt to export its construction industry’s surplus supplies of steel and cement. Participants agreed that China will need to demonstrate patience and resolve as it deepens its involvement in challenging environments, particularly in Central and South Asia.
Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center based in Beijing, China. Prior to joining Carnegie, he served from June 2007 to June 2009 as the director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolian Affairs on the National Security Council staffs of former president George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.
Gu Jianqing is the chairman of Guangzhou Daily Media as well as the party secretary of the Guangzhou Daily. He has written several books about China’s economy, the Maritime Silk Road, and sustainable development.
Daniel Markey is a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is also the academic director of the SAIS Global Policy Program and an adjunct senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program, which he established in 2006. His research focuses on U.S.-China relations, Europe-China relations, Chinese policy in South Asia, and broader developments in China’s foreign and economic policy.
Yao Yao is currently the director of research at the China Public Diplomacy Association. He also oversees the Center for National Soft Power Research at China Foreign Affairs University, a national-level think tank affiliated with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.