Belt and Road Initiative
In Xi’s speeches, the phrase most closely associated with the Belt and Road Initiative is “community of common destiny.” Xi’s use of this term is meant to link the BRI to the deeper purpose party leaders have articulated for the CCP over the last three decades. China’s leaders believe that not only is it their “historic mission” to bring about China’s “national rejuvenation” as the world’s most prestigious power, but that China has a unique role to play in the development of “political civilization” writ large.
It is the Chinese, Xi maintains (as Hu and Jiang did before him), who have adapted socialism to modern conditions, and in so doing have created a unique Chinese answer to “the problems facing mankind.” Though this answer began in China, Xi is clear that the time has come for “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach” to benefit those outside of China. The Belt and Road Initiative is intended to do just that. By using the Chinese model of socialism to develop the world’s poorer regions, the initiative justifies Xi’s grandiose claims about the party’s historic mission on the international stage.
To match these lofty aims, Chinese academics and policy analysts at prestigious party think tanks have articulated more down-to-earth goals for the initiative. According to them, the BRI promises to integrate China’s internal markets with those of its neighbors. Doing so will bring its neighbors closer to China geopolitically and bring stability to the region. By increasing economic activity in China’s border regions, such as Xinjiang and Tibet, the belt and road initiative route will lessen the appeal that separatist ideology might have to the residents. Another projected benefit is the energy security that will come through the construction of BRI-funded transport routes. Finally, by articulating and then following through on an initiative that puts common development over power politics, China will gain an advantage over other major countries (read: Japan and the United States) who present the world as a black-and-white competition for hegemony. The community of common destiny, these analysts have claimed, is a community that will immensely benefit China.
As the Belt and Road Initiative is only five years old (and many of its main members have been involved for a far shorter time) its full results cannot yet be judged. However, a preliminary assessment can be offered for BRI projects in South and Southeast Asia, the region described by Chinese leaders as the “main axis” of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is here that BRI investment is strongest and has been around longest. The picture is not promising. The hundreds of billions spent in these countries has not produced returns for investors, nor political returns for the party. Whether Chinese leaders actually seek a financial return from the Belt and Road Initiative has always been questionable—the sovereign debt of 27 BRI countries is regarded as “junk” by the three main ratings agencies, while another 14 have no rating at all. In South and Southeast Asia expensive port development is an excellent case study. A 2016 CSIS report judged that none of the Indian Ocean port projects funded through the BRI have much hope of financial success. They were likely prioritized for their geopolitical utility. Projects less clearly connected to China’s security needs have more difficulty getting off the ground: the research firm RWR Advisory Group notes that 270 BRI infrastructure projects in the region (or 32 percent of the total value of the whole) have been put on hold because of problems with practicality or financial viability. There is a vast gap between what the Chinese have declared they will spend and what they have actually spent.