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China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Views from along the Silk Road

Jessica Keough, Michael Clarke, Andrew Small, Harsh V. Pant, Ritika Passi, Sebastien Peyrouse, Meena Singh Roy, Nargis Kassenova and Hong Yu

PDF free through September 20, 2017.

In this Asia Policy roundtable, experts examine how Asian states that are affected by China’s Belt and Road Initiative view this strategy and its potential implications.

Introduction
Jessica Keough

The Belt and Road Initiative: China’s New Grand Strategy?
Michael Clarke

First Movement: Pakistan and the Belt and Road Initiative
Andrew Small

India’s Response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative: A Policy in Motion
Harsh V. Pant and Ritika Passi

The Evolution of Russia’s Views on the Belt and Road Initiative
Sebastien Peyrouse

Afghanistan and the Belt and Road Initiative: Hope, Scope, and Challenges
Meena Singh Roy

China’s Silk Road and Kazakhstan’s Bright Path: Linking Dreams of Prosperity
Nargis Kassenova

China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Its Implications for Southeast Asia
Hong Yu


Introduction

In 2013, China’s president Xi Jinping announced an initiative that would set the course for much of China’s foreign policy toward its Eurasian neighbors. Consisting of two parts—an overland “belt” connecting China with Central Asia, Russia, South Asia, and Europe and a maritime “road” linking Chinese ports with those in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe—the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) envisions a vast network of railways, highways, ports, pipelines, and communication infrastructure spanning the Eurasian continent and facilitating trade, investment, and people-to-people exchange. In 2015, Beijing announced a plan to develop six economic corridors to advance this initiative. China’s leadership has rallied behind BRI, pledging substantial investment, creating new financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Silk Road Fund, and making diplomatic commitments to countries along the proposed routes. To many observers, BRI appears to be an outline of China’s ambitious new grand strategy, [1] but what do states in the region think of this initiative?

The seven contributors to this Asia Policy roundtable seek to answer this question by examining how Asian states along this new Silk Road view BRI and its potential implications. Michael Clarke begins the roundtable with an essay that analyzes China’s motivations and objectives. He concludes that BRI is motivated by Beijing’s desire to resolve long-term domestic, economic, and geopolitical challenges by strengthening states in China’s frontier regions, exporting Chinese capital and labor, and establishing an alternative to the current international order. BRI integrates these objectives into a strategy that furthers China’s goal of returning to great-power status without provoking strong counterreactions.

Andrew Small seeks to understand Pakistan’s role in BRI through an examination of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Despite Pakistan and China’s long history of an “all-weather friendship,” previous joint infrastructure and economic projects have generally failed to deliver on their rhetoric. Although both sides clearly stand to gain from CPEC and some progress has been made, long-standing challenges in Pakistan provide reason for skepticism that the project will in fact meet Beijing’s goals.

While not on board with BRI, India is closely watching the initiative, particularly CPEC. Harsh Pant and Ritika Passi argue in their essay that pressure is mounting on New Delhi to decide whether to remain on the sidelines. India is wary of the security implications of BRI, particularly for the contested area of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and for Indian Ocean ports and sea lanes; however, China’s infrastructure development projects could be a boon that increases the region’s economic interdependence and gives India leverage to shape the initiative from within. India thus faces challenging decisions as BRI unfolds.

Russia, by contrast, has moved from caution to an embrace of BRI, at least for now. The initiative will expand China’s presence not only in Central Asia, Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, but also further westward in Turkey, the Middle East, and Europe. While Moscow recognizes this dilution of its own influence, Sebastien Peyrouse argues that Russia’s economic crisis and the effects of Western sanctions have left it with few other powerful partners. By linking BRI to its own regional initiative—the Eurasian Economic Union—Moscow hopes to stake a claim to partial ownership of the idea and largely preserve its regional influence while avoiding conflict with Beijing and direct responsibility for the practicalities of implementing BRI in Central Asia.

Meena Singh Roy argues that Afghanistan has straightforward reasons to welcome BRI: the prospects of the new investment and development it will bring. Kabul hopes that the initiative will improve infrastructure to better connect war-torn Afghanistan with its South and Central Asian neighbors, allowing the country to increase its regional trade. Afghanistan also would like to see China undertake a greater peacekeeping role in the country in order to protect Chinese citizens and investments. However, security, geopolitical, and economic challenges may well prevent the realization of these aspirations. For China to consider a bigger role for Afghanistan in BRI, the country’s security situation will first need to improve.

Kazakhstan likewise has high expectations for BRI, stemming in part from a history of cooperation with China on transportation and energy projects. Nargis Kassenova explores the complementary ideas and projects behind China’s BRI and Kazakhstan’s Bright Path (Nurly Zhol) economic policy. She cautions, however, that both popular fear of China and ongoing government corruption might present obstacles to the elite’s generally warm reception of BRI.

Hong Yu explores the implications of BRI for Southeast Asia. Despite a strong sense of regionalism, countries in Southeast Asia see differently the opportunities and challenges arising from BRI depending on their level of development and comfort with China. Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, three countries more closely aligned with China, are supportive of the infrastructure development promised by the initiative. Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines welcome the infrastructure and trade that BRI could bring but are wary of becoming too economically dependent on China. They are also suspicious of China’s geopolitical intentions, given its assertiveness in the South China Sea disputes.

As this roundtable demonstrates, there is considerable optimism about BRI across Asia, as well as concern and skepticism regarding China’s ultimate intentions and ability to deliver on its promises. While infrastructure development is sorely needed in many areas of the region, the prospect of greater Chinese geopolitical and economic influence is sobering to many of the countries involved. Time will tell whether China is able to realize its ambitious strategy for a more integrated Eurasia and what the implications of that outcome will be.


Jessica Keough is Managing Editor of Asia Policy at the National Bureau of Asian Research.


Endnotes

[1] For a comprehensive study of BRI, see Nadège Rolland, China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2017).