The Silk Road was a network of ancient trade routes that spanned Eurasia, enabling the flow of goods, ideas, and people between the East and the West. Named after the Chinese silk that was traded along the route, the Silk Road fostered trade between ancient civilizations and established long – lasting political, economic and cultural ties.
2000 years later, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the largest infrastructure development projects in history, is beginning to revive and develop the physical infrastructure that existed along the routes of the Silk Road, placing China at the center for international trade and development for the future.
China’s BRI was first launched in 2013 and will consist of a “belt”, a series of land corridors that span from East Asia to Europe, and a maritime “road” consisting of ports linking Asia, Africa and Europe. The BRI will focus of building railways, ports, pipelines, power grids (hard infrastructure) as well as developing soft infrastructure through the creation of over 50 special economic zones and other educational programs.
Over 65 countries are involved in the BRI, with the goal of increasing global connectivity and fostering global development. Together with China, these countries account for over approximately 30% of global GDP and over half of the global population. In addition, over 100 countries and various international organizations have expressed interest in the plan, showcasing China’s global ambition for the BRI. China plans to spend over $1 trillion in the initiative in the next decade and the initiative is such a cornerstone to Chinese policy that it was written into the Communist Party’s constitution in 2017. While the bold vision of the BRI has the potential to develop the new Silk Road for the future, there is concern over China’s growing geopolitical influence and the economic and political risks for developing countries.
The BRI has the potential to drastically accelerate global development and promote international cooperation and peace. For China, the BRI provides opportunities for its state – owned enterprises to partake in construction work across the globe, promote the Renminbi as a leading international currency and the opportunity to expand its export markets to the entire globe. The BRI will dramatically strengthen China’s economic and political interests as well as solidify China’s position as a global power force and champion of global development. Being one of the largest infrastructure projects in history, the BRI enables China to spread and increase its influence far and wide.
The infrastructure that is being created by the BRI decreases the transport time and costs associated with transporting goods between countries. By creating new easier and cheaper transportation routes the BRI will make international trade easier for China and for other countries as well. Through the connectivity and ease that emerges because of the network of corridors and roads that is being built, the BRI stands to benefit China and the rest of the world from a trade standpoint. With many developing countries desperately needing infrastructure development, the BRI emerges as an appealing plan for developing countries. For the host countries of the BRI initiatives, the infrastructure created by the BRI has the potential to drastically improve the local economy by creating new jobs and enabling easier exports to other markets.
However, there is concern about what the BRI means for China’s political and economic influence and how involvement in the BRI poses risks for developing countries. With China providing huge loans to partner countries involved in the BRI, there is concern that these loans may fuel corruption, decrease environmental regulations and saddle developing countries with huge debt, leaving them at the mercy of China.
China’s financing of such large infrastructure projects in developing countries that are unable to afford it leaves those countries dependent on China and hinders their ability to become politically and economically independent. In the long term, this may lead to economic imperialism that gives China leverage over poorer countries.
Sri Lanka served as a cautionary tale to the rest of the world regarding this, as it had to cede its Habantota port to a Chinese company in return for some relief on the billions of dollars in debt it owed to China. Other countries involved in the BRI such as Pakistan, Tajikistan and the Maldives are expected to owe over half of their foreign debt to China alone. Western countries are concerned that China is using “debt – trap diplomacy,” trapping poorer countries in desperate need of infrastructure, into huge debts and then demanding concessions to help relieve that debt.
There is also concern that the infrastructure being built could double as a way for China to have a global military presence. Considering that China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti, Western countries are concerned that the ports and other transportation routes China is building may be converted to military bases in the future. With Chinese companies mainly working on the infrastructure projects worldwide, the BRI has also faced criticism as local construction companies are not able to participate in the infrastructure projects that are being built.
On March 23, 2019, Italy signed a MOU with China to join the BRI, becoming the first G7 country and the largest country, economically, to join the BRI. Italy’s decision has sparked even more concern from Western nations that have expressed concerns about China’s growing economic and political influence. Considering Italy’s slow economic growth and debt, Italy hopes to develop its infrastructure with Chinese backing, increase its exports to China and create new jobs.
The BRI reflects an ambitious plan for a connected world that mimics the best aspects of the ancient Silk Road. Although it has the potential to spur global development, it also reflects a new world order in which China is situated as the heart of the global economy. Considering the USA’s decreasing involvement in international trade, China has emerged as a country not only with a plan for global development, but with the financial means to execute those plans and propel the world into a new era of trade and connectivity.
Works Cited List
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- Tweed, David. “China’s New Silk Road.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 15 Apr. 2019, www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/china-s-silk-road.