A historic trading post, Kashgar, Xinjiang, is central to China's Belt and Road Initiative. But Beijing says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in Xinjiang. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter
A historic trading post, Kashgar, Xinjiang, is central to China's Belt and Road Initiative. But Beijing says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in Xinjiang. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as One Belt, One Road, is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposed framework for development across the Eurasian continent and beyond. Focusing on enhanced connectivity through infrastructure developments, the initiative imagines a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that spans Eurasia, along with a “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, running by sea from China to Europe and the South Pacific.

This is a dictionary definition of the initiative, but it doesn’t say much about what BRI means, nor what exactly it entails.

What is BRI exactly?

In 2017, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is just as difficult to define as it was when first unveiled in 2013. Although much has been written about BRI in the past four years, the literature surrounding the initiative covers a lot of common ground and proffers the same indistinct picture. The reason for this mismatch between coverage and content is partly a question of BRI’s scale and partly a question of timing.

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How big is ‘colossal’?

To start with, the proposed scale of BRI, outlined in Beijing’s March 2015 action plan, is colossal. The several overland corridors and maritime “roads” of BRI run through countries cumulatively encompassing 55% of world gross national product, 70% of the planet’s population, and 75% of known energy reserves.

Xi Jinping’s geographically diverse strategy is accompanied by appropriately strong financial muscle. The Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the specifically tasked US$40 billion Silk Road Fund are the most visibly involved financial institutions, but China’s numerous policy and state-owned commercial banks are also making vast contributions toward plugging Asia’s supposed $8 trillion infrastructure gap.

The geographical spread of BRI, along with the broad involvement of Chinese financial institutions, means that it is sometimes difficult to find developments that are not somehow associated with BRI. The “one belt and one road” are in fact many belts, roads, corridors, and infrastructure projects ranging from pipelines to entertainment centers. BRI is also part of the ongoing mission to develop areas of inland China that have missed out on the good fortune of the prosperous east coast. Within China, officials have seen a rush of bureaucrats and businessmen eager to “brand” projects as part of BRI.

This concept, of BRI as a “brand”, also applies to larger flagship developments. The Singapore-Kunming Rail Link is one of BRI’s better known rail projects, yet it was signed into action as early as 2006. This is not unusual; many of BRI’s more advanced-stage projects have been long in the making, and after BRI’s announcement, they were simply “repackaged” into the BRI concept.

BRI is hugely open and flexible in terms of definition. The Chinese leadership is yet to publish an official BRI map, and institutions and countries are both free to seek participation in the initiative. Explicitly, the “action plan” states that BRI is “open to all countries … and organizations”. The scale and flexibility of BRI are therefore the first things to complicate its definition. With even outer space apparently included as part of the initiative, BRI suffers from a “surplus of meaning”, and while the term applies to almost everything that can be described as a Chinese development project, it will remain difficult to define precisely.

What’s the plan?

Beijing’s 2015 “action plan” is the most comprehensive and detailed official document on BRI to date. But given the absence of meaningful official statements about BRI, this detail does not amount to much.

The plan is actually conspicuously light in terms of specifics, instead stressing China’s typical foreign-policy maxims of “win-win cooperation” and dedication to “harmony, peace and prosperity”. The section titled “China in Action” describes the government’s active explanation of the “rich contents and positive implications of the Belt and Road Initiative”, rather than any technical developments. This highlights an aspect of BRI also evident in the report’s own description of the initiative, as an “ambitious economic vision”.

Currently, BRI is more about talk and vision than it is about action. Numerous memoranda of understanding have been signed between China and participating countries, whereas more binding agreements are few and far between. Any confusion around BRI’s definition is compounded by the fact that the Chinese leadership is still deciding that question.

The question of BRI’s schedule is often obscured by media hype surrounding showcase freight trains to London, but authoritative estimates put the implementation start date of BRI at 2021, with completion in 2049 – just in time for the centenary of the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, four years into a 19-year planning stage, the lack of an official map is hardly surprising. The government’s lack of clarity in discussing BRI could even be read as an active invitation to think tanks and companies to participate in the brainstorming process.

When will we know more?

A casual search for news on developments related to BRI will find hundreds of projects in various states of progress across Eurasia and Africa. But these mentions of BRI do not help much to pin down the initiative as a whole, or to explain China’s strategic vision.

But the scale of BRI obscures any attempt at definition, and it should instead be understood as a thoroughly flexible and open framework of enormous scale. This flexibility is partly due to the relative youth of the initiative; although BRI has been around for almost half a decade now, this is a blink of an eye in the context of BRI’s progress.

But China watchers keen on following BRI’s developments need not wait until 2049 to learn more about it. The next big event we have to look forward to is the two-day international forum set to take place on May 14 in Beijing. World leaders have been cordially invited, and it remains to be seen who will attend and what they will talk about.

Jacob Mardell is a postgraduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is researching China's Belt Road Initiative and writes on Chinese politics, as well as the occasional travel piece.

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