As the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) marks its 10th anniversary, its context has evolved significantly within the geopolitical and economic landscape. Initiated in 2013 with the objective of fostering global economic development and international cooperation, the BRI has since broadened its scope to include ideological and strategic dimensions. This ideological shift is formally articulated in a White Book titled “The Belt and Road Initiative: A Key Pillar of the Global Community of Shared Future,” published by The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China in October 2023. This official document sets the stage for understanding the BRI as not merely an infrastructure project, but as a complex and multi-dimensional initiative intersecting with a range of global issues—from governance and diplomacy to technology and sustainability.
Adding further weight to this evolving narrative, the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF III) was convened on 18 October 2023, in Beijing. Drawing participation from over 130 countries, the forum serves as a testament to the BRI’s global outreach and offers a vital platform for scrutinizing its evolving priorities. However, the forum also spotlighted several complexities, most notably the absence of significant Western representation and a marked shift toward green and technological paradigms.
In light of these developments, this commentary aims to critically interrogate the evolving narratives, strategic shifts, and global implications of the BRI. The objective is not to provide a chronological recounting of events but to analyse the initiative’s trajectory, with a focus on the key transitions and contradictions that have characterized its first decade.
From Infrastructure to Ideology: A Paradigmatic Shift
When launched in 2013, the BRI was overwhelmingly framed as an infrastructure development project, aimed at constructing a modern-day Silk Road to facilitate trade and economic cooperation. Fast forward to today, and it becomes evident that the initiative’s ambitions have burgeoned well beyond its initial scope. The BRI is no longer just about roads, ports, and railways; it has evolved into a comprehensive platform that seeks to redefine the contours of global governance, technology, and even ideology.
The Chinese Government’s White Book notably characterises the BRI as a “key pillar of the global community of shared future,” an expression loaded with ideological undertones. This phrase suggests a vision wherein the BRI is not just a series of infrastructural projects but a foundational element for a new world order underpinned by Chinese norms and governance models.
This ideological shift has been substantiated by the recent BRF. The forum’s focus on green transition and high-tech initiatives is particularly telling. It represents a marked departure from large-scale infrastructure projects to more sustainable, and arguably, more ideological undertakings. For instance, the emphasis on green technologies can be interpreted as China’s endeavour to position itself as a global leader in sustainable development, while the focus on digital finance and e-commerce platforms appears as an attempt to export China’s technological prowess and governance models.
However, this transformation raises several pressing questions: Is the BRI gradually metamorphosing into an instrument for exporting Chinese ideology and governance frameworks? If so, what are the implications of this shift for participating countries that might not fully align with China’s vision of governance and development? And critically, is this ideological expansion an adaptive strategy to lend the initiative greater legitimacy, or is it a calculated move to reshape global norms in a manner that aligns with China’s long-term strategic interests?
The Transparency and Governance Conundrum
The BRI has come under scrutiny for its governance structures and transparency, or the perceived lack thereof. These concerns are not without merit. The recent BRF revealed that projects amounting to more than $90 billion have encountered “insurmountable problems,” ranging from cancellations to indefinite delays. Such revelations inevitably raise questions about the integrity of the initiative’s governance and its accountability mechanisms.
However, the White Book offers a contrasting narrative. While it acknowledges the BRI as a “key pillar of the global community of shared future,” it largely sidesteps the pressing issues of governance and transparency. The document focuses on the initiative’s contributions to global development and cooperation, leaving the governance questions conspicuously unaddressed.
This discrepancy between the challenges revealed at the BRF and the narrative presented in the White Book is troubling. It not only raises concerns about the initiative’s transparency but also brings into question its accountability to participating countries and international stakeholders. This lack of transparency becomes all the more critical in the context of the BRI’s expanding scope and ambitions, as discussed above.
The governance conundrum extends beyond project management to include broader issues such as debt diplomacy and geopolitical leverage. The absence of a transparent governance model can exacerbate these concerns, as countries may find themselves entangled in unfavourable terms and conditions, which could have far-reaching implications for their national sovereignty and economic stability.
The governance and transparency issues thus form a critical axis around which the BRI’s credibility revolves. Addressing these concerns is not merely a matter of enhancing the initiative’s operational effectiveness but is crucial for its long-term viability and its standing in the international community.
Western Absence: Scepticism or Strategic Retreat?
The absence of significant Western representation in the recent BRF is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored, especially considering the global aspirations of the BRI. The highest-ranking EU official present was Hungary’s populist leader Viktor Orban, a detail that speaks volumes about the West’s apprehensive stance toward the initiative. This absence poses a twofold question: Is it a manifestation of scepticism, or does it signal a more calculated, strategic retreat from the BRI?
Scepticism toward the BRI among Western nations has been well-documented. Concerns often revolve around the initiative’s governance structures, its lack of transparency, and the potential for so-called “debt diplomacy.” The White Book, while expansive on the BRI’s contributions to global development, does little to assuage these concerns, perhaps contributing to Western reticence.
However, the absence could also be interpreted as a strategic recalibration on the part of Western nations. In an era marked by geopolitical realignments and the rise of multipolarity, the West’s non-participation might signal a re-evaluation of its engagement strategies with China. This could be part of a broader policy shift, considering Italy—a G7 nation—is contemplating an exit from the BRI, which may herald a more extensive Western realignment concerning China’s global initiatives.
The implications of this Western absence are manifold. On the one hand, it challenges the BRI’s narrative of being a truly global initiative, casting a shadow on its inclusivity claims. On the other hand, it opens up space for increased participation from other regions, notably Latin America and Africa, potentially shifting the geopolitical focus and impact of the initiative.
In either case—whether stemming from scepticism or strategic recalibration—the lack of significant Western participation in the BRF is a critical development that warrants close observation. It not only influences the BRI’s current dynamics but also has far-reaching implications for its future role in global geopolitics and international relations.
Geopolitical Aspirations Versus Realities
The BRI is as much a geopolitical endeavour as it is an economic one. As the White Book posits, the BRI aims to be a “key pillar of the global community of shared future.” This ambitious vision suggests that China seeks not merely to construct physical infrastructure but to carve out a sphere of geopolitical influence.
However, the actual dynamics revealed in the recent BRF offer a nuanced picture. Despite the conspicuous absence of significant Western participation, the forum attracted a broad spectrum of representatives from Latin America, Africa, and even included Russia’s Vladimir Putin and a minister from the Afghan Taliban. This diverse participation underscores the BRI’s success in forging alliances and partnerships that cut across traditional geopolitical lines.
Yet, this success should be contextualised. While the BRI has managed to attract a wide range of countries, the quality and depth of these engagements vary. The absence of key Western players and their apprehensive stance toward the initiative cannot be overlooked. It presents a potential limitation to the BRI’s aspiration to shape a new world order, as any such order would necessarily require a degree of consensus among the world’s major powers.
Moreover, the initiative’s encounter with “insurmountable problems” in projects worth over $90 billion, as revealed in the BRF, indicates that its geopolitical reach may be outpacing its operational capabilities. This raises questions about the BRI’s ability to fulfil its geopolitical aspirations effectively.
The divergence between the BRI’s geopolitical ambitions and its on-the-ground realities poses a challenge to its future. While the initiative has been successful in diversifying its geopolitical portfolio, this breadth of engagement must be matched by depth and quality. Simply put, the BRI needs to translate its broad geopolitical aspirations into actionable, transparent, and accountable policies to gain comprehensive international acceptance.
Beyond Infrastructure: A Futuristic Perspective
The BRI is undergoing a palpable shift in focus, moving beyond its original blueprint centred on infrastructure development. The BRF III showcased this evolution prominently by highlighting new areas like green technology, digital finance, and e-commerce platforms. However, perhaps the most significant indicator of this shift was the introduction of the Global Development Initiative, a $10 billion program initiated in 2021.
The launch of the Global Development Initiative at the BRF is more than just an addition to the BRI’s project portfolio; it symbolises China’s broader aspirations on the global stage. By introducing a program that aims to promote social and economic development, China is signalling a willingness to lead in areas traditionally dominated by Western institutions. This development aligns with the vision presented in the White Book.
The shift towards more diverse, globally-oriented objectives raises several critical questions. Is the BRI transforming into a multi-dimensional platform that serves as a framework for a range of global initiatives? If so, what implications does this transformation have for global governance models, especially when the initiative is increasingly viewed as an instrument to share Chinese governance ideals and build a consensus on Chinese norms?
This expansion also introduces new layers of complexity. While diversifying its objectives may lend the BRI greater legitimacy, it also amplifies the challenges related to governance, transparency, and accountability—issues that are already contentious, as discussed above.
As the BRI commemorates its 10th anniversary, it finds itself at a critical crossroads marked by evolving priorities, ideological shifts, and a complex global reception. Initially conceived as an infrastructure development project, the BRI has expanded its scope to include more diverse and globally relevant objectives, as evidenced by the BRF III and the launch of the Global Development Initiative.
However, this expansion has not come without its set of challenges. The initiative faces pressing questions related to governance, transparency, and accountability—issues that have been further complicated by its evolving focus and global aspirations. Additionally, the conspicuous absence of significant Western participation in recent BRF events raises questions about the BRI’s ability to become a truly inclusive, global initiative.
The BRI’s geopolitical aspirations, as outlined in the White Book, stand in contrast to its on-the-ground realities. While it has succeeded in attracting a broad range of participating countries, the depth and quality of these engagements remain subjects for scrutiny. The initiative’s expanding scope also calls into question its operational capabilities, especially in light of projects worth over $90 billion encountering “insurmountable problems.”
As the BRI navigates its second decade, it must confront these multifaceted challenges and complexities. It stands at a juncture where it must reconcile its lofty aspirations with real-world limitations and criticisms. This will require a concerted effort to enhance governance structures, improve transparency, and foster meaningful international partnerships.
In conclusion, this commentary aims to spotlight the critical issues that the BRI faces as it evolves. It invites further scholarly inquiry and policy-oriented discussions to scrutinise the initiative’s trajectory and its implications for global geopolitics and international relations.