The $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a major part of China's Belt and Road Initiative. Image: CPEC/Facebook

Keep an eye on China’s Belt & Road Initiative in the new year. There is more going on than is generally realized.

Belt & Road is not only the construction of land and sea transport “corridors” across and around Asia to Africa, Europe and beyond to facilitate trade; not just Chinese-built ports and harbors along the coasts of Asia, Africa and Latin America that might be turned into naval bases; not just “debt-trap diplomacy” aimed at roping developing nations into an emerging Chinese international order.

David Arase, honorary professor at the Asia Global Institute at The University of Hong Kong and resident professor of international politics at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, addresses these points in great detail.

More than enough detail to disabuse us of the notion that – its methods and purposes having been called out by vociferous American diplomacy – Belt & Road is on the back foot.

In a published essay, Arase writes that the Chinese have been aware of the shortcomings of the original physical infrastructure-focused Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) – including credit, environmental and reputational risk – for some time and are dealing with them in a comprehensive, forward-looking manner:

By the second Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in 2019, China had reacted to the negative risk-reward prospects of the initial cooperation phase by announcing a new “green and sustainable” era for the Belt and Road …

Less noticed but perhaps more significant was a new focus on harmonizing disparate legal, policy and technical standards regimes among connected BRI countries. In his speech at the 2019 BRF, [Chinese President] Xi emphasized that “we need to promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, say no to protectionism and make economic globalization more open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial to all.” In concrete terms, this meant promoting uniform standards for free trade zones, intellectual property protection, technology transfer rules, tariff reduction, exchange-rate stabilization, trade treaty enforcement and trade and investment dispute resolution ….

While heavy infrastructure project cooperation would still be needed to upgrade corridor connectivity, BRI cooperation has expanded into technology – knowledge-intensive digital backbone technologies (the “digital silk road”), health-related industries (the “health silk road”) and complex 5G-based internet-of-things (IoT) projects such as smart cities (“innovation cooperation”).

With this as background – and unable to meet due to the virus – I interviewed the professor from Tokyo by email. Here’s Part 1 of the two-part edited interview:

Q: You’ve talked before about China’s Belt & Road being not just a matter of promoting trade through infrastructure, but a comprehensive geostrategy with a military component. Could you elaborate?

David Arase. Photo: Asia Global Institute

Belt & Road infrastructure projects create a bridgehead for Chinese commerce, investment, finance, technology and logistics to enter much smaller developing country economies and to modernize and dominate sectors where they can profitably operate.

If the modernized economy of a country reaches a point where it cannot be maintained without Chinese firms and access to Chinese finance, trade and technology, governments put in this situation would be satisfied, bribed or compelled to follow Chinese requests and preferences to ensure their own interest in economic and political stability.

They could even be persuaded to request cooperation with the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese civilian security ministries to protect and defend their joint investments in infrastructure and Belt & Road connectivity with China.

If this kind of situation becomes widespread across the Belt & Road footprint, with their future economic and political prospects at stake, governments across Eurasia will have no choice but to cooperate with China’s economic, political and security governance agendas even if these undermine and replace those of the United States and its allies.

BRI advances this kind of geo-economic strategy by providing “hardware,” or physical plant, equipment, transportation, power and digital infrastructure financed by state-owned banks and built and operated by Chinese state-owned enterprises.

These party-state flagship entities bring a whole ecosystem of Chinese exporters, subcontractors, labor service providers, private enterprises and petty entrepreneurs everywhere Belt & Road projects are built.

Q: But doesn’t this process create more and more overseas assets that China needs to protect?

Exactly. When a state accumulates overseas vested interests it must arrange for their protection. The rules-based [international] order has established multilaterally agreed and legally binding norms that govern the acquisition and protection of overseas interests.

But for the system to work in the absence of a world government, all contracting parties have to respect the norms they have pledged to uphold.

Under the current order, there are two different reasons to develop armed capabilities and recruit allies to defend your overseas interests. One is to defend your lawful rights under the rules-based order. The other is to forcefully claim new rights and impose new governance norms to enhance your own interests at the expense of existing norms and rights of other actors.

The accumulation of overseas interests is what the Belt & Road Initiative does in a big way across and around Eurasia. As China builds ports, plantations, mines, railways, industrial parks and trade zones, new markets, new transportation routes and communities of overseas citizens, it cannot be faulted for seeking ways to protect them.

Q: Meaning that what started as economic outreach is now linked to China’s national defense?

On the contrary, it has been from the beginning.

The Belt & Road Initiative was launched in autumn 2013 together with complementary diplomatic, political and institutional initiatives to build a new kind of China-centered international order. These partner initiatives included “periphery diplomacy,” building a “community of common destiny” and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Belt & Road infrastructure must be built in accordance with China’s formal legal and policy mandates that implement military-civilian integration or fusion. The 2010 National Defense Mobilization Law mandates that civilian infrastructure projects “which are closely related to national defense shall meet the national defense requirements and possess national defense functions,” and must be surrendered for military use when needed.

Security guards walk past a billboard for the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on May 13, 2017. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

The 13th Five Year Plan (2017-21) calls for integrated civilian-military development projects in overseas maritime regions. The 2015 defense white paper calls for infrastructure development that accommodates both civilian and military use that is “compatible, complementary, and mutually accessible.”

And the 2017 National Transportation Law requires “planning, construction, management and use of resources in transportation fields such as railways, roads, waterways, aviation, pipelines and ports for the purpose of satisfying the national defense requirements.”

Chinese state-owned enterprises designing and building BRI infrastructure must act in accordance with these laws.

Q: And this, I presume, leads inevitably to the expansion of Chinese security-related activities overseas?

Yes. China acknowledges no formal connection between Belt & Road and the People’s Liberation Army. But in fact, the extension of overseas investment interests via Belt & Road requires that the overseas protection roles and missions of the army keep pace.

According to the army’s strategic planners, “where national interests expand the support of the military force must follow.” Thus, China’s geopolitical influence advances with the Belt & Road Initiative in the vanguard and with the People’s Liberation Army bringing up the rear to secure Belt & Road investments and trade routes from potential threats.

In performing its Belt & Road overseas protection missions, the People’s Liberation Army should find Belt & Road partner governments willing to accept military education, training and equipment that enhances their own national security as well as the security of Chinese investments.

The People’s Liberation Army should also find Belt & Road port and transportation infrastructure accessible, familiar and easy to operate in emergencies if necessary.

With the start of the Belt & Road Initiative from 2013, it is not accidental that the 2015 anti-terrorism law authorized the People’s Armed Police to perform overseas counter-terror missions and that the 2015 defense white paper added safeguarding the security of China’s overseas interests and maintaining regional and world peace to the strategic missions of the People’s Liberation Army.

The 2019 defense white paper describes “overseas interests” as improved overseas military operations and support, overseas logistical facilities, vessel protection operations, strategic sea lane security and overseas evacuation and maritime rights protection operations.

In 2020, the National Defense Law was revised to add “safeguarding China’s overseas interests” and authorized the People’s Liberation Army to “mobilize its forces” to “defend its national interests and development interests, and resolve differences with the use of force” as additions to the “missions and tasks” of the army.

Belt & Road assets and follow-on commercial investment and trade interests obviously constitute overseas development interests, so now the People’s Liberation Army, aided by Chinese diplomacy, must develop cooperation and capabilities to defend these interests if ordered to do so by the Chinese Communist Party. 

It is not as if the Chinese military has been caught unprepared. The Chinese navy will complete a third (and new-model) aircraft carrier by summer 2021 and has started building a fourth. It also has developed a counter-terrorism force capable of overseas deployment, an expeditionary marine corps and a paratrooper corps with large new types of maritime and air troop transport vessels to deploy these forces.

With only one officially acknowledged overseas base in Djibouti, overseas protection of Belt & Road development interests will require the negotiation of agreements with host countries to transition ports, airports and development zones that heretofore have been exclusively civilian into dual or parallel use facilities available to support an enhanced level of People’s Liberation Army strategic presence to secure jointly vested Chinese and Belt & Road partner country development interests.

Q: How does this change the calculus of Belt & Road geostrategy?

Besides securing support for People’s Liberation Army operations, dividends include agenda-setting in regional governance forums; the capture of markets and critical resource supplies; Belt & Road partner cooperation with party-state military and police agencies to secure interests and grow influence with partners; and political influence via education and training of politicians, government officials, soldiers and policemen and youth in partner countries. For a party-state dedicated to the Chinese Dream agenda, such political and strategic gains may far outweigh the financial cost of Belt & Road project loan write-offs.

Next: Beyond Eurasia

Scott Foster, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, is an analyst with LightStream Research in Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottFo83517667