When the Belt and Road Initiative was first launched ten years ago, there was much puzzlement. ‘What is it?’ was a widely asked question. And quite reasonably so. Because Belt and Road was like nothing we had seen before. This was not a plan with fixed dates. There was nothing concrete. There were no boundaries. There was no end date. In every sense it was open-ended. It was an idea, a concept. It was a totally new and original way of thinking about a project. Furthermore, it was on the hugest of scales, encompassing the great majority of the world’s population. We have never seen anything like this before. The nearest was the America’s Marshall Aid plan between 1947 and 1952, but that was puny in comparison.
The point of departure for the idea of Belt and Road was a reflection on China’s own transformation. What lessons might be drawn from it for the developing world? What could the developing countries learn from it? At the heart of China’s transformation was state-led, large-scale investment in infrastructure. If it worked for China, then why not for others? Most of the Eurasian land mass, together with Africa and Latin America, suffered from a disabling shortage of infrastructure. Belt and Road would seek to change that. China would be the hub of the project. It would consist of a multitude of bilateral agreements between China and the developing countries, with China providing the funding, typically in the form of loans. The response has been enormous with 147 countries now part of Belt and Road.
If many scratched their heads in puzzlement about Belt and Road when it was first announced, this has long ceased to be the case. Everyone now knows in varying degrees what it is about. In ten short years, it has become part of the global geo-economic firmament, no less than the IMF and the World Bank. Let’s remind ourselves where China was in 2013 when it was launched. It was in the process of emerging from the Deng era during which the overriding priority had been China’s own economic development; it was quiescent on the global stage, seeking to keep a low profile, a rule-taker not a rule-maker, famous for its extraordinary economic growth rate but not for its international initiatives, which it sought to avoid. Little did we know at the time, but the launch of Belt and Road was to signal a huge shift in China’s relationship with the world. It marked the moment of China’s coming out. And it was to prove remarkably successful. It is not an exaggeration to argue that over the decade of its existence it has changed the world.
In what ways?
First, Belt and Road promoted the question of development to a position of fundamental centrality on the global stage. The West had always paid little more than lip-service to the developing world, which it looked down upon and treated in an exploitative and paternalistic manner. Belt and Road offered a new kind of solution for the developing countries. And in the process the developing world came to occupy an increasingly important position on the global stage.
Second, Belt and Road forged a new kind of relationship between China and the developing world. China came to be seen as the champion of the developing countries. It became a powerful voice on behalf of the developing countries, not just by word but crucially by deed.
Third, Belt and Road paved the way for a new kind of global alignment and, as a result, a new kind of global politics. The relationship between China and the developing world is not based on a shared view of politics or ideology, nor military alliances, but on the most important issue facing the great majority of the world’s population, that of development. This is entirely different from the West’s approach. Belt and Road has been the agency and stage for this shift, which we see expressed in many different ways, including the very independent attitude of the Global South towards the Ukraine war. Belt and Road has heralded the rise of geo-economics as a new force in geo-politics.
Fourth, Belt and Road has introduced, for the first time, key tenets of Chinese philosophy to the wider world. For over two centuries the language and concepts of international politics have been exclusively Western. That era is now well and truly over. With Belt and Road has come new ways of thinking: the ability to think in truly global terms because development is quintessentially a global issue; a very different idea of time, in which timescales are hugely longer – far from being limited to a few years, or at most a decade as in the Western mind, in the case of Belt and Road we must think in terms of half a century, or even without any time limits at all, such is the challenge of development. Then we have the idea of win-win relationships rather than zero-sum thinking. And Belt and Road, of course, is the living embodiment of China’s Concept of a Community of Shared Destiny. Belt and Road is like a crash course in Chinese philosophy.
Fifth, Belt and Road is an entirely new kind of international institution. The international system has been dominated by US-style institutions, like the IMF and the World Bank, whose distinctive characteristic is that they represent and speak on behalf of a small minority of humanity. Belt and Road, in contrast, is a new kind of international institution that seeks to represent 85% of the world who live in the developing world. In other words, it offers a glimpse of a very different kind of international system in which the interests of the majority rather than the minority predominate.
Belt and Road comprises the great majority of the world’s nations. They are drawn from across Eurasia – including Central Asia, South East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Europe – together with Africa and Latin America. China’s cumulative expenditure on Belt and Road since 2013 amounts to a huge $932bn, a colossal contribution. It is important to see Belt and Road as a dynamic institution, one that is constantly moving and changing as the world itself changes. In the initial phase, the main emphasis was on very large-scale infrastructural projects, but alongside these, SMEs, environmental and climatic needs, and green projects have been acquiring growing significance. The pandemic for a period inevitably led to significantly reduced Chinese investment. The Ukraine war means a new emphasis on maritime rather than land routes, one or two of which will for the foreseeable future be impossible.
What then, finally, of the Western response. The US initially dismissed Belt and Road as irrelevant. But, as a growing number of countries signed up to it, it could no longer be ignored, so the US sought to undermine it, accusing it of debt diplomacy. The contrary is the case. China has gone to great lengths to help countries avoid into getting into deep debt. Between 2008 and 2021, it gave $240bn to 20 distressed countries. Where necessary it has renegotiated deals to make them less burdensome. Belatedly, the West has finally recognised that it needs to offer an alternative to Belt and Road. But there is little or no sign that the West, be it the US or EU, or the two combined, has the commitment, the resources, or the political conviction to come up with a viable alternative. It would require a huge shift in the West’s attitude towards the developing world, one which is patently not forthcoming. After ten years, the West has nothing to offer. Belt and Road is the only show in town.