Dr Keren Zhu is a Global China Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center. She holds a PhD in Policy Analysis from the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), global infrastructure, international development and program evaluation.
The metaphor of blind men touching different parts of an elephant characterizes the fragmented and incomplete understanding of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) globally. Despite China signing agreements with over 150 countries, the existing policy research offers two dominant versions of the BRI story. The first version, which may be summed up as a “dead end,” characterizes the BRI as a problematic initiative with large ventures reminiscent of an ancient tributary system, leading to debt crises, labor conflicts, community pushbacks, media warfare, and diplomatic fiascos, ultimately leading to a recent all-time dip in overseas investment and diversion to new international cooperation initiatives. The second version, which may be called “new pathways,” suggests that the BRI has departed from development pathways taken in the past and has created new paradigms, like South-South cooperation and need-based development. In doing so, the BRI demonstrates the value of a gradualist approach to development cooperation and suggests a new way to conceptualize China’s relations with the world, amid great power competition.
As the BRI continues to expand its influence in geographical and sectoral scopes, it is crucial to understand its different parts holistically and integratively. By reviewing the past ten years of the BRI and assessing the validity of the two different versions, this article identifies the potential pathways forward for the different actors involved.
Ten Years of the Belt and Road Initiative: A Brief Review
Looking back on the ten-year development history of the BRI, its development can be divided into four stages.
The first stage of the BRI (2013- 2015) was marked by the gradual formation of the initiative. During visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia, Chinese leaders proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road as cooperative initiatives, which were later combined to form the Belt and Road Initiative. China, facing the United States’ Pivot to Asia strategy, sought to expand its influence in the Eurasian region by deepening economic ties. At the same time, it aimed to establish strategic bases overseas to address energy and transportation security concerns, with important ports, pipelines, and transportation routes planned and constructed under the BRI. Domestically, China was grappling with overcapacity in the aftermath of a surge in infrastructure and real estate development and aimed to cooperate with developing countries in capacity building. China’s large foreign exchange reserves, accumulated under its export-oriented economic model, were used by policy banks to issue loans abroad, helping Chinese infrastructure firms to expand their overseas markets and address infrastructure challenges in developing countries. Although various domestic think tanks emerged during this period, there were few international discussions about the BRI.
The second stage (2015-2017) saw rapid development for the BRI. The release of the Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road marked a shift towards a specific action plan, defining the policy goals, cooperation areas, and modes of cooperation for the BRI. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) marked the creation of the first multilateral development financing institution initiated by China. The BRI was also incorporated into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) charter in 2017, solidifying its position as the guiding policy for China’s foreign engagement. During this period, the BRI reflected Chinese leadership in economic mobilization. In response to falling overseas asset prices during the global economic crisis in 2015, the Chinese government led overseas investment, resulting in a peak in China’s outward foreign direct investment and policy bank lending. At the central government’s request, each province issued a BRI cooperation implementation plan. However, the BRI’s rapid expansion led to the hasty launch of large-scale infrastructure projects in BRI countries, which began to spark international controversies due to the rough feasibility studies in the early stages and various problems that emerged in different places. Despite the advantages of China’s construction efficiency and demand-oriented development cooperation model, these issues highlighted the need for improved project planning and execution.
The third phase of the BRI (2017-2019) was a time of reflection and adjustment. In 2017, the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation was held, which issued a document reflecting on the progress and challenges of the initiative. Facing the criticisms about the BRI, President Xi Jinping proposed transitioning the initiative from a “painting in freehand brushwork” to one in “meticulous style”, emphasizing priorities in investment. During this period, both China’s development finance and outward foreign direct investment significantly slowed down due to increasing domestic restrictions. The BRI shifted its project types from large-scale economic infrastructure to smaller socio-environmentally oriented South-South cooperation projects. Priorities of cooperation shifted from capacity cooperation to support for decarbonization and energy transition. These changes were influenced by a combination of factors, including China’s policies, the development needs of host countries, and the international response to the crisis of climate change. During this period, concepts and stereotypes such as “debt trap” and “white elephant projects” were generated internationally. Although these issues have been clarified in academic circles, they were still widely circulated and integrated into the mainstream narratives about the BRI.
The fourth phase of the Initiative (2019-present) was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a three-year contraction and a subsequent redefinition. China’s external exchanges decreased significantly, and both outward foreign direct investment and development finance declined. The pandemic also dried up the funding for international cooperation. Expansive international investment and development finance gave way to initiatives prioritizing domestic development such as “internal circulation” and “dual circulation” economic policies. Meanwhile, the growing hostility between China and the United States led China to increasingly rely on developing countries for its diplomacy, with South-South cooperation becoming a priority. The United States attempted to comprehensively contain China’s influence by rallying allies and promoting counter-initiatives in areas such as economic cooperation, infrastructure, and project standards. This has led to a competition for “soft power” between China and Western countries in developing countries. As China gradually emerged from the impact of the pandemic, it proposed the Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative, which some observers believe were to shift attention away from the BRI.
Looking at the ten-year development of the BRI, has it achieved its expected goals? If we take the “Five Connectivities” outlined in official Chinese policy documents – namely policy coordination, facility connectivity, trade connectivity, integrated finance, and people-to-people exchanges – as evaluation standards, we can conclude that the Initiative has made progress in all five areas along with problems and risks.
In terms of infrastructure connectivity, China’s global expansion of its infrastructure-led development model has triggered a race with the West, which has proposed its own infrastructure initiatives. Nevertheless, issues such as project sustainability and social and environmental impacts need to be addressed in practice.
In terms of trade, the BRI is establishing a China-centric trade system with developing countries through infrastructure construction and trade negotiations. However, the decoupling risk arising from the US and its allies’ crackdown on Chinese high-tech firms remains a significant challenge for China.
In terms of financing, the BRI financing model has evolved to embrace more diverse financing mechanisms and development financing institutions. Nonetheless, with the pandemic magnifying the debt problems for participating countries, China is still exploring ways to address the problem.
At the level of policy dialogue, China has engaged with over 150 countries and 40 international organizations to establish Belt and Road cooperation, applying innovative policy dialogue models. However, differing views exist on whether the initiative represents a brand-new approach to policy communication or a rebranded version of old practices.
Regarding people-to-people exchange, China has explored cultural and educational exchanges and media outreach and telling its own story. Nonetheless, more work is needed in understanding local demands and reconciling conflicts that emerged in the BRI project rollout.
Has the Belt and Road Hit a Dead End?
In 2014, at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta gave an emotional speech, stating “what we do today will not only transform Kenya’s developmental trajectory, but it will also rewrite the future of the East African region.” In 2017, under a clear blue sky, a new train with red, white, orange, and yellow stripes arrived at the Nairobi Railway Station, and the people rejoiced. Kenyan leaders, who were waiting at the station, celebrated and welcomed the arrival of the train, named the “Madaraka Express” in Swahili, which means “freedom.”
The development of the Kenyan SGR presents benefits for both China and Kenya. For Kenya, the railway has helped improve transportation efficiency, promote regional economic development, and create new and decent job opportunities in Kenya. For China, it has provided an opportunity to export Chinese railway standards, expand its market in Africa, and transition from construction contracting to the integration of construction, investment, and operation. It has also become a flagship BRI project symbolizing the China-Africa friendship.
Challenges and negative publicity, however, have plagued the development of the Kenyan SGR and Kenya-China relations at large in recent years. The bidding process has been criticized for illegality, local human rights organizations have sued, and corruption during construction has been reported. The railway also cuts through Kenya’s largest national park, threatening the ecological environment. Moreover, the railway loan has been criticized as part of China’s “debt trap diplomacy.” Despite the new Kenyan government’s efforts to enhance transparency such as releasing the project loan agreements, negative opinions about the railway persist and may impact its future development. Most recently, Kenyan small-scale traders protested against a Chinese-owned retail shop for undercutting them with low prices, reflecting local perceptions of the Chinese as a threat despite years of engagement.
The challenges encountered by the Kenyan Railway are representative of the difficulties China faced in implementing the BRI at large. A “dead end” narrative suggests challenges facing the BRI may lead to its retraction.
One of the major issues that the BRI faces is debt sustainability. China’s policy banks have financed infrastructure projects in host countries, but this has increased the debt burden on recipient countries. COVID-19 gas worsened the issue, making it even more difficult for the least developed countries to repay their debts. This has affected China’s willingness to lend, hindering the progress of infrastructure investment and project implementation. This has resulted in unfinished projects, reduced economic benefits, and lower investment returns, which further affected the repayment progress of debts, creating a vicious cycle that hinders project development. The issue of debt has been portrayed as a geopolitical problem, contributing to the perception of BRI and Chinese development finance as threats.
The lack of project evaluation has led to criticism of the social and environmental impact of the projects. Loans are often granted during the peak of the borrowing cycle, and feasibility studies and due diligence are often rushed, resulting in uneven project progress and quality after the infrastructure frenzy. In addition, without a detailed understanding of the local social and economic context, there tends to be a serious disconnect between project planning and actual needs, leading to the creation of large and useless “white elephant projects.”
Infrastructure investment presents significant financial risks. It requires large capital investment and a long payback period, which exposes investors to substantial risks. Ancillary facilities also demand additional financing, leading to a “snowballing” effect in infrastructure finance. In some cases, for infrastructure investment to be economically beneficial, an entire integrated infrastructure system must be completed, not just one phase or a few components. For example, the full potential for the Kenyan SGR will be released only when the railway connects the coastal area with landlocked countries in East Africa. However, issues often arise during the early or middle stages of a BRI project, forcing decision-makers to choose between continuing to provide financing and increasing the debt burden or halting construction, which could damage China’s reputation and bilateral relations with the host country. Ultimately, the burden of financing, and any losses, could fall on the Chinese state, impacting taxpayers.
The sustainability of a project under the BRI is significantly influenced by the economic and political environment of the host country. At the political level, the support of the host country’s government is crucial to the project’s success. However, political support wavers officials may seek rent-seeking opportunities, causing corruption and delays in implementation. The instability of the political situation after a government change also affects project operations. A supportive investment environment, transparent processes and regulations, and stable supply chains are necessary for sustainable operation. The local environment and institutions play a decisive role in the success or failure of a BRI project.
The economic and political environment of the host country also has a significant impact on the sustainability of the project. At the political level, the success of the project is closely related to the support of the host country’s government. When the government needs Chinese projects as political achievements, they choose to fully support the project’s progress. However, after re-election, they may shift their focus, causing delays in project implementation. Officials at all levels may also seek rent-seeking opportunities, leading to corruption in the project. The instability of the political situation after the government changes also seriously affects the stable operation of projects. A supportive investment environment, transparent processes and regulations, and stable supply chains are necessary for sustainable operation. The local environment and institutions play a decisive role in the success or failure of a BRI project.
The challenges faced by BRI projects reveal some fundamental contradictions that China confronts in its external interactions with various regions, nations, and political structures.
The BRI has inherent contradictions as both a development proposal and a tool for expanding national interests in great power competition. As a development initiative, it aims to promote international cooperation and shared benefits through infrastructure-led development, providing funding and technology for development. However, from the perspective of national interests, the BRI serves to enhance China’s international influence by deepening its economic and diplomatic ties with other countries. Countries with rival interests view the initiative as a threat to their own influence and national security and have responded by suppressing China’s economic, diplomatic, and public opinion impact.
The BRI also faces a dilemma in reconciling the short-term interests of various stakeholders with the long-term conditions necessary for sustainable development. The success of the Initiative requires satisfying the short-term interests of various parties involved, including China’s diplomatic and international trade departments, policy banks, provinces, state-owned enterprises, and the host country government. These stakeholders often prioritize early results, flagship projects, lending quotas, market share, and political achievements, respectively. However, this focus on short-term gains can lead to debt accumulation, unfinished projects, and other unforeseen negative impacts that undermine long-term development goals.
The third conflict facing the BRI is differences in accountability models and socio-cultural norms between China and host countries. China’s centralized governance system manages BRI projects in a top-down manner; bilateral agreements guide Chinese enterprises’ local advancement. However, in many countries along the Belt and Road, power is decentralized, and leaders are accountable to their constituents. When implementing BRI, local community approval and support are required, and the maximization of local interests and the reduction of negative impacts are also important. In addition, there are significant social, cultural, and institutional differences between China and the host countries, which can result in clashes in values as manifested in labor, socio-environmental, and governance conflicts.
The BRI also faces a mismatch between the expectations of participating countries and the limited resources and development models China can offer. While many developing countries hope that China can bring funding, infrastructure, and technologies to achieve poverty alleviation and economic prosperity, China’s resources and development models can only complement the existing momentum in countries. At the inception of the BRI, it emphasized capacity cooperation with other countries, which was an area of mutual interest between China and other developing countries. However, the rise of global climate challenges requires environmental protection and energy transformation, which put pressure on whether China’s model and resources can meet the development needs of various countries.
In addition, the BRI confronts a discrepancy between China’s domestic and international communication regarding its international engagement. Domestically, China emphasizes the significant economic benefits brought by projects to the host country, but this has caused misunderstandings among many taxpayers who believe that China is spending too much money overseas despite facing economic downward pressure at home. Globally, China tends to promote the positive impact of projects and has yet to provide a balanced account that acknowledges problems. Against the backdrop of great power competition, this kind of rhetoric has increased negative perceptions of the BRI among China’s domestic and international observers, deepening the perceptual gap between the actual and perceived impacts of the BRI.
The cautionary tale of the “dead end” version of the BRI narrative highlights the need for China to reflect on the challenges facing the Initiative and propose systematic solutions. Addressing the issues raised above requires joint efforts from China and the host countries.
New Pathways for Development
Along the Atlantic coast of West Africa sits a port that is about to begin operation. The Lekki Port in Nigeria, which broke ground in 2020, is invested in, constructed, and operated by China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC), making it the first large-scale, integrated deep-water port in Africa with Chinese investment and control. It is also the only infrastructure project in Africa to adopt the “integrated investment, construction, and operation” (IICO) model. The Lekki Port is a result of the second Belt and Road Forum, and its development model represents a reflection and exploration of the BRI.
Another way to view the BRI requires thinking about the “new pathways” that the Initiative offers in resolving global challenges when existing global institutions such as G20 find it difficult to reach a consensus and provide effective solutions. The BRI bears great potential as a global solution generator for at least two reasons. First, China has accumulated rich experience in identifying appropriate pathways through trial and error based on its own development trajectory in the past few decades. Second, the Initiative’s massive scale and large number of projects helps catalyze innovations on the ground, making it easier to test the adaptability of development approaches from a large sample size of projects on the ground, adapt the solutions based on local conditions, and take lessons from a large sample size of favorable and unfavorable outcomes.
The BRI has seen explorations for new development pathways at various levels. At the project level, the innovation of the BRI mainly manifests in breaking away from domestic traditions in an attempt at overseas market expansion. For example, during my fieldwork in Kenya, I learned that to facilitate the operation of the Kenyan SGR, China Road and Bridge Corporation obtained the qualification for railway operation by acquiring a railway operation company in Australia. This set a precedent for China’s overseas railway development and broke the monopoly of railway operation qualification by a single entity in China. This demonstrates the potential of using new practices in Chinese companies’ overseas development and operations to inform systemic changes in Chinese state-owned enterprises’ overseas development strategies.
Similarly, in project operation, BRI projects showcase the transition of Chinese firms from construction contractors to investors and operators. Compared with other models of infrastructure development, the integrated investment, construction, and operation model, as outlined in the example at the beginning of this section, is more conducive to Chinese companies’ coverage of the entire infrastructure supply chain and helps the host country to better operate and maintain the project, promoting sustainable project development, and facilitate Chinese entities to expand their local market share. While the new models are still relatively limited in Chinese entities’ overseas practices, if successfully promoted, it may help host countries diversify project finance and break away from reliance on loans issued by external entities. In doing so, it may help alleviate the financial burden on the host country and promote sustainable project development.
At the national level, China, by introducing an infrastructure-led development, addresses host countries’ connectivity bottleneck and fills infrastructure finance gaps. Infrastructure, if leveraged well, can be stepping stones for structural transformations and solutions for energy transition and climate change challenges. or the developing world. In particular, China-financed megaprojects, given their large scale and salience in host countries’ development agenda, play a critical role in inspiring new changes.
Facing the debt issues that in part resulted from massive infrastructure investment, China and host countries are engaging in policy dialogues that may generate new solutions for a global debt crisis. In the face of the growing debt problems of developing countries, China engages with host countries in developing solutions including debt reduction, extension of repayment periods, and waiving interest-free loans. For instance, China was the first international official creditor to implement debt relief for Zambia and also co-led the Zambia Debt Creditor Committee in pushing forward debt negotiation. China has also been active in developing new models for debt restructuring, as exemplified by the proposal of the “Shanghai Model” which built on past models but incorporated distinctive features of Chinese sovereign lending.
At a transnational level, the establishment of new multilateral development institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) demonstrates China’s attempt to take a leadership role in shaping rules for global governance. The AIIB, which has attracted a number of countries parting ways with the World Bank, could unsettle the political influence the United States has enjoyed over the developing world through its World Bank leadership. China also advocated for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade deal to deepen economic ties with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region and to promote regional integration. By strengthening trade and investment links, the RCEP could join other China-initiated frameworks and institutions in providing new pathways to the global economic order.
Comparisons between the newly proposed Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the BRI shows that China has learned from ten years of BRI implementation and refined its pathways to global engagement. China has shifted its strategy from a broad and loosely defined range of projects to a clearly defined project list, from an expansive cooperation network to a focus on South-South cooperation, from large-scale economic infrastructure construction to “small and beautiful” projects, and from a strategic-oriented approach to a development-oriented approach. In addition, China has shifted from emphasizing its leadership in the initiative rollout to emphasizing collaboration with the United Nations. While some may interpret these changes as a reduction in China’s international ambitions, they can also be viewed as a learning process that is transforming China’s foreign engagement from an extensive approach with tremendous risks and waste to a surgical and robust approach with greater efficiency and success.
Even as the BRI growingly aligns with China’s domestic development priorities and retracts in size and scale, new models for international development and cooperation can still be generated in the course of continuous implementation and innovation. Successful experiences from domestic pilot projects can also inspire the next stage of cooperation with Belt and Road countries. China’s domestic experience can be utilized to address local development issues and provide practical solutions for global development.
Future of the BRI and Policy Implications
It is difficult to say which version of the BRI is closer to reality as the Initiative is constantly evolving and adapting. However, the future of the Initiative will depend on various factors such as China’s domestic economic growth, political stability, and the needs of countries along the Belt and Road. Additionally, the compatibility of development models that China exports with the needs of the recipient countries will also play a critical role. Furthermore, the evolution of geopolitics amid great power competition will also have an impact on the future of the initiative.
The domestic economic development of China will play a critical role in the future of the BRI. At present, the Chinese economy is facing challenges due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as issues such as an aging population, a high unemployment rate, local government debt, and wavering confidence in the private sector in the market. How these issues are addressed will have varying impacts on taxation, interest rates, money supply, and other factors. The resulting changes will greatly influence foreign exchange reserves, exchange rates, the funding pool for development cooperation, and the willingness of enterprises to invest overseas, ultimately shaping the future trajectory of the BRI.
The prospects of the BRI are also linked to the development needs of host countries. For instance, during the pandemic, cooperation under the initiative focused mainly on vaccine diplomacy and health cooperation. With the pressure brought by climate change and its related crises, green development and energy transition will become the focus of the next phase of BRI cooperation. Whether China’s development model, technology, and resources can match the new development needs will determine the tenacity of the BRI going forward.
Evolving geopolitics will shape the direction of the next phase of partnership under the BRI. With the continuous tension in US-China relations, China is relying more on countries with similar political systems and ideologies as well as the vast number of countries in the Global South to expand its international influence and gain international support. If this trend continues, it may evolve into a “new Cold War,” causing an increasing disconnect in international trade and supply chains and having a negative impact on the BRI.
The Chinese government needs to strengthen project evaluation, systematically sort out the experience and lessons learned, establish a knowledge management system on BRI projects, explore the underlying reasons for successful and failed cases, and enhance the capacity building related to project development. An in-depth policy coordination system between China and host countries will also help improve the future development of BRI. This may be achieved by increasing talents in regional studies in BRI staffing, developing localized project development and management methods, stimulating each country’s inherent development potentials and advantageous industries, and forming adaptive debt relief strategies based on local circumstances. With reducing funding from loans, the Chinese government should explore ways to diversify project financing schemes and treat public and private capital equally in promoting the financial sustainability of the BRI. Leveraging Chinese corporations’ leadership in low-carbon technology, the Chinese government provide incentives for green infrastructure development to meet host countries’ demand for energy transition.
Host countries should set up legal and regulatory frameworks to improve business environment and strengthen institutional support for sustainable project development. In-depth policy coordination mechanisms with China needs to be established to maximize the development impetus embedded in unique local endowments. To learn from the past ten years of experience, a better monitoring and evaluation system is needed to transfer learning for future development.
For countries that view the BRI as a threat, namely the U.S. and its allies, a systematic summary of its ten years of implementation can provide insights into future policy responses. In the face of the rapid evolution of the BRI, competing countries need to develop a more agile and adaptive mechanism for generating policy responses to the initiative as a moving target. While generating a counter-BRI narrative may be a useful short-term response strategy, the long-term global influence of competing countries will depend on how compelling a competing vision they can offer and realize. Existing counterproposals such as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and the Global Gateway need to move from statements of intent to plans of action more quickly to create a real impact on the ground. When the criteria for evaluating the success of a country’s international engagement shifts to developmental benefits, global influence may well become a by-product.
International organizations should leverage their experience in development finance and partnership in identifying new ways to cooperate with the BRI. Facing heightened geopolitical tensions, multilateral institutes play a critical role in promoting cooperation. In cases where cooperation is impossible, international organizations should seek to maximize common ground between countries and minimize the likelihood of conflict escalation. They also play a key role in supporting developing countries with technology transfer and structural transformation through resource mobilization and capacity building.
As a fitting conclusion to this essay, a quote from an ancient Chinese poem by Li Po comes to mind: “I looked back at the footpath where I came from. A stretch of green runs across a pale view of hills.” Like a misty hike, the rollout of an international initiative such as the Belt and Road is packed with seeming dead ends and potential new directions. The true value of the initiative lies in the lessons we learn from it, and the pathways we chart out. For countries involved, it is important to continually reflect on and improve the initiative, while for those that view it as a threat, it is crucial to develop agile and adaptive policy responses. In this way, the Belt and Road Initiative will continue to evolve and contribute to global development and cooperation.