This paper was written by Phillip Holt, a Research Assistant and Intern at The Institute of World Politics.
Much of the current discourse surrounding China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is focused on whether it poses a threat to the United States’ partnerships in Asia and what the United States can do to counter it. This paper takes a different course, instead looking at the motivations behind Beijing’s colossal infrastructure project in China’s periphery. After defining the BRI, this paper moves on to outline China’s core interests by looking at statements by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as Chinese and Western scholarship on the issue. These interests include state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity, protecting China’s social stability and political system, and, finally, ensuring continued economic and social development. Three key motivations for the BRI are discerned, closely related to these core interests. Firstly, there exist in China’s periphery key geopolitical opportunities of which China can take advantage to pursue its core interests. This paper highlights these opportunities by examining five case studies in Southeast and Central Asia and how the BRI is helping China pursue its core interests in these nations. Secondly, China is bent on creating a new regional order to replace the American-led liberal international order. The BRI will help China achieve this new regional order by making it the key trade, economic, and political partner of nations in China’s periphery, allowing China to follow a model of relations between nations that benefits Beijing and is markedly different from the one observed in the West. Finally, the BRI helps tackle the domestic challenges that China will continue to face in the coming years. This paper examines three of these domestic challenges and explains how the BRI helps solve them and how this helps China pursue its core interests. Ultimately, this paper frames the motivations for China’s BRI in a pragmatic interpretation of China’s core national interests as defined by Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will come to define 21st Century Asia. Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, has repeatedly labeled it “the project of the Century.” The BRI’s footprint is evident from Indonesia to Italy. But as the Chinese economy catches up with the American economy, questions are being asked of China’s, and Xi’s, signature policy. What counts as a BRI project? Does the BRI suggest Chinese intentions with regard to creating a new international order? Is China finally becoming assertive and posing a threat to the West? This paper seeks to answer a different question, but one that is no less pertinent. What are the motivations behind the BRI in China’s periphery? By doing so, hopefully, we can gain a better understanding of Chinese policymaking surrounding the BRI.
Beijing is pursuing the BRI to help it achieve its core national interests. This paper starts by outlining how China perceives these interests. By looking at articulated Chinese interests as well as analysis from within and outside China, the paper concludes that China’s core interests are rooted in guaranteeing security, whether that be for China itself, its people, or its regime. The paper then goes on to analyze three different motivating factors behind China’s pursuit of the BRI. These factors allow China to pursue its core national interests that ultimately protect China’s security. These factors are: taking advantage of geopolitical opportunities, founding a Sino-centric regional order, and facing up to China’s domestic challenges.
In its periphery, specifically Southeast and Central Asia, there are plenty of geopolitical opportunities that China can take advantage of to further its core national interests. The BRI allows China to secure energy resources in Central Asia and quell ethnic unrest on its borders. BRI money can also “buy” neutrality on China’s borders, removing potential threats to China’s national security.
China’s new Sino-centric regional order allows China to bind nations closely to it, increasing the security and stability of China’s fragile social system. By “buying” countries with BRI money, China also hopes to pull them into its sphere of influence. This is particularly true in China’s periphery, where nations from Kyrgyzstan to Cambodia have fallen in line and become cooperative on issues that China perceives as affecting its national security and interests.
The BRI also targets several domestic challenges that China faces. Underdeveloped western provinces, overcapacity in key industries, and a potential slow-down in growth are all reasons for Beijing to fear for its domestic security. China links development with security, meaning that, if its western provinces are developed, Beijing believes there will be reduced unrest there. Exporting China’s overcapacity in steel and concrete will allow Beijing to begin to reduce that capacity while also sidestepping the Middle-Income Trap. Finally, a slow-down in growth is highly problematic for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which perceives that its legitimacy rests on delivering jobs and growth. Again, the BRI is touted as a way to solve all these problems. Before delving into these factors, however, this paper briefly tackles how it defines the BRI.
Defining the BRI
It is incredibly difficult to give a precise definition of the BRI. Not even Beijing is quite sure of what the BRI entails. As Yuen Yuen Ang notes, “Chinese leaders often speak [about the BRI] … in vague or even cryptic terms. For example, the central guiding document for BRI from 2015 to 2017 was only seven pages long and sketched broad principles.” Difficulties in defining what BRI projects are have caused issues for China. Due to a lack of a proper definition by the CCP, “many actors using the BRI brand left it tarnished.” From a Western perspective, Grzegorz Stec of the European Institute for Asian Studies suggests that rather than being “neither a strategy, nor a vision,” the BRI is better thought of as a “process.” This is because the BRI is constantly going “through an evolutionary process.” Many might not agree with Stec’s somewhat unorthodox interpretation, but its existence goes to show how ambiguous the BRI is and how difficult it can be to define. It may be better to simply define its features rather than its precise nature. As such, the following definition is used: the Belt and Road Initiative is the name given to a Sino-centric push to build infrastructure and increase trade, cultural, and diplomatic relations between China and nations that have signed up to it since Xi Jinping announced it in 2013.
Chinese Perceptions of Interests
In international relations, perceptions matter. Russia invaded and annexed Crimea because it perceived creeping Western influence in its periphery. President Donald Trump put tariffs on the European Union because he perceived the EU as “ripping the United States off.” Equally, China will act to protect what it perceives as its core national interests. This is simply the way the world works.
Whereas some nations have core interests that go beyond simply guaranteeing security – for example, the United States’ historical promotion of the liberal international order is not always explicitly linked to its core security – China’s perceptions of its own interests are seemingly deeply rooted in guaranteeing its own security. Thus, China’s BRI, which pursues China’s core national interests can, to some extent, be viewed as a tool to guarantee Chinese security.
It is important to note that this is not the case when the BRI extends beyond China’s periphery. What does control of Piraeus, Greece’s largest port, have to do with China’s core interests and security? The answer is likely not much. Investments such as these have more to do with sowing divisions within Europe and across the Atlantic. Therefore, this paper will focus on how the BRI works in China’s periphery and how China’s strategy in the regions of Central, South, and Southeast Asia, where an overwhelming majority of the BRI money is pledged, is related to its core interests and security. This is not to say that China’s ambitions in Europe, Africa, and South America are not crucial to study. They are. Simply put, China’s motivations in its periphery are different from those in regions further afield, and it is important to understand China’s strategy in its periphery as it may hold the key to countering what most scholars in the West perceive as Chinese aggression in Asia. This also does not mean that the West should not fear rising Chinese influence in Asia. The U.S. has key interests in the Asia Pacific region that may be under threat from China. Understanding China’s motivations for its BRI strategy in its periphery can inform a better U.S. strategy for protecting these interests in Asia.
In 2011, the Chinese government released a White Paper titled “China’s Peaceful Development.” Even if a paper from before Xi Jinping came to power may seem a little dated, it is still one of the clearest articulations of China’s core interests to come from China’s leadership and is, thus, invaluable. A small caveat must be noted first, however. If China had ambitions towards global hegemony, it would hardly write them down for anyone and everyone to read. As such, these articulated core interests may not necessarily encompass all of China’s interests, but they do explain some of China’s motivations. Nestled towards the bottom of the paper, the paper states: “China is firm in upholding its core interests which include the following: state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and national reunification, China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability, and the basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.” All of these core interests are rooted in promoting the security of the Chinese nation, its people, and its regime.
While on the surface it may seem that development is not causally linked to security, China understands a linkage between the two. As a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report puts it, “China’s peaceful development paradigm claims that the country’s continued pursuit of economic development will contribute to regional and global … security and stability.” The calculus is simple. China believes that if regions prone to insecurity develop economically, they will be better equipped to handle that insecurity. China also believes that security cooperation will naturally follow from development cooperation between nations, increasing China’s security. This is clarified in a 2017 White Paper published by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs which notes how “security and development are closely linked and mutually complementary,” and how “faster regional economic integration will provide solid economic and social support for the development of the security framework.” Development benefits China’s security both domestically as well as in its periphery in Central and Southeast Asia, regions that have historically caused China security issues.
It is not only from within China that we see Chinese core interests being linked with China’s security; it is also clear from Western research on China. The former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, argues that China has seven concentric circles of core interests. These include protecting the Chinese economy, “national unity,” and “strategic interests in its maritime periphery.” Five of these seven circles are couched in protecting China’s security while the other two are more focused on exporting China’s model abroad and maintaining good relations with developing nations. These two final interests suppose the coming of a new world order led by Beijing. China, while not currently pursuing global hegemony, a strategy likely to change, is pursuing a regional hegemony focused on protecting its core interests as the CCP and Western analysts have highlighted.
Some Chinese scholars, such as Wang Yiwei, argue that the BRI is not “based merely on China’s national interests … [but] the overall interests of regional cooperation.” However, China knows that it will encounter soft power problems if it explicitly states that the BRI is solely pursuing China’s own national interests. As such, we should take scholarship from within China with a pinch of salt, considering much of it needs to pass Beijing censors. Perceptions of the BRI as being solely beneficial for Beijing has caused problems for China in the past. For example, Malaysia canceled several major BRI projects in the summer of 2018, arguing that the projects were “detrimental to the country and its fiscal health,” suggesting the projects were more for China’s benefit than Malaysia’s. Furthermore, as Jeffrey Bader notes, Chinese strategic thinking has a deep “belief in great power spheres of influence” and that “Chinese strategists still tend to see their security … intensely wrapped up in their neighborhood.” If this is the case, wouldn’t Asian regional cooperation through the BRI increase Chinese security and further its core national interests? The fact that one of the Malaysian BRI projects, a railroad running from the Strait of Malacca to northeast Malaysia, was restarted a year later with more favorable terms for Malaysia, shows how much China desires regional interconnectedness, regardless of its cost. Ultimately, even if China and some Chinese scholars claim that the BRI is focused on building regional cooperation and economic development, this does not mean that it also does not benefit China directly by protecting its core national interests.
However, according to an empirical study conducted for Chatham House by Jinghan Zeng, Yuefan Xiao, and Shaun Breslin, many Chinese scholars do not shy away from articulating the need for China to defend its core national interests in an assertive manner. This study looked at over 100 Chinese articles concerning China’s core interests and found that “about a sixth … of articles argue that China should ‘resolutely safeguard’ … its core interests.” While a sixth is by no means a large proportion of the articles studied, it is important to understand that many of those articles may not have been written in order to give policy recommendations. To this end, the authors of this study give the impression that there is a “groundswell around the idea that China should now be seeking to be more proactive in asserting and defending its core interests,” something that the BRI sets out to achieve.
The rest of this paper will examine the three main motivations for China’s pursuit of the BRI strategy in its periphery. It is important to keep in mind that these motivations are rooted in the basic premise of pursuing China’s core national interests. These three motivations are: taking advantage of geopolitical opportunities, creating a new Sino-centric regional order, and facing domestic challenges.
China’s Geopolitical Interests
One of the easiest ways that China can guarantee security for its core national interests is by employing the BRI to take advantage of its geopolitical situation. But does China have an overarching geopolitical strategy, or does the BRI go wherever geopolitical opportunities appear? If China had a grand geopolitical motive for its BRI, then it would be obvious by looking at the BRI funding data. To this end, data was compiled for this research paper to understand the direction of China’s BRI investments and whether they have any underlying geopolitical strategy. The key metric used to understand China’s geopolitical motivations is “BRI Investment as a percentage of a nation’s GDP.”
It is important to understand that because of the blurry definition of what the BRI is, and because of China’s inherent opaqueness to external scrutiny, it is difficult to say which Chinese investments are actually part of the BRI. As such, the data is not intended to be a comprehensive catalog for BRI investments. Far from it. By completing a rough sketch of Chinese BRI investment patterns, this paper hopes to illuminate whether there is a specific geopolitical motive behind the BRI, or if it is focused on taking advantage of geopolitical opportunities wherever they appear.
The underlying data this analysis used came from several sources. The most important source was the “China Global Investment Tracker” published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). This data differentiated between what was a BRI investment and what was not. However, it is important to note that that any Chinese investment in East Asia, excluding Japan and Taiwan, after 2013 (when Xi Jinping announced what was then the One Belt One Road policy) was labeled as a BRI investment. Similarly, any investment in West and South Asia, excluding investment in India, after 2013 was also labeled as a BRI investment. This is not to question the validity of AEI’s data; rather, it is simply worth noting the difficulty of determining what a BRI investment is, and the simplicity with which this was done. This data was immensely helpful in building a sketch of general Chinese BRI investment patterns, considering that the China Global Investment Tracker is, according to AEI, “the only comprehensive public data set covering China’s global investment and construction.” Other data came from both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as from Trading Economics and CEIC Data, two reputable economic data gathering firms.
By looking at the data and the map above, one can conclude that there are no direct geographic criteria for China to invest with its BRI other than those countries in which China has most heavily invested are on China’s doorstep. Whilst there does seem to be greater investment in certain regions, Southeast Asia for example, the rest of this section will demonstrate how in those countries in which China most heavily invests, China does so to secure its core national interests by taking advantage of geopolitical opportunities.
Laos is one of the most heavily invested-in countries under the BRI relative to its GDP. So, what are the geopolitical advantages that China is taking advantage of? One of the key interests China has is energy security. Frank Umbach, an expert in energy security, notes in a 2019 report that “China has interpreted energy import dependencies as vulnerabilities and, therefore, opted for ‘energy independence’ and self-sufficiency.” Guaranteeing energy self-sufficiency would help push along China’s core national interests, namely protecting its national security, since Chinese tanks and ships would no longer be reliant on fuel from abroad which could be limited in a time of conflict, and “ensuring sustainable economic and social development.” Laos is important for China’s energy needs. The Mekong River runs “through Laos, making hydropower a potentially lucrative industry.” By building a hydroelectric dam and investing in Laos to make it more secure and stable, China would guarantee more energy supply that it could rely upon, compared to energy imports from other nations, imports China deems unreliable. Laos “is also endowed with underdeveloped resources” that are crucial to China maintaining its economic growth, again a key core national interest. By investing in Laos, China guarantees access to these resources.
The other interest that China has in Laos is that, being geographically at the core of Southeast Asia, Laos could become “the land-linked core of the Greater Mekong Subregion.” This would allow China overland access to the region’s largest economy, Thailand, which is key to continuing China’s economic development, one of its core national interests.
China’s interests in Southeast Asia go beyond energy security. In late 2018, the United States raised concerns with Cambodia that it was allowing China to build a naval base within its borders. Such a naval base would allow China “a more favorable operational environment in the waters ringing southeast Asia [and] a military perimeter ringing and potentially enclosing mainland southeast Asia.” This base would give China leverage over nations on its doorstep, nations that have historically created problems for China’s security and nations whose security is guaranteed by the United States. In the words of Charles Edel of War on the Rocks, “if a Chinese military base in Cambodia allowed Beijing to restrict that access [to maritime and mainland routes out of the region], many states would make the calculation that they had little choice but to follow Beijing’s lead,” which could help guarantee stability in the region and protect China’s security from its neighbors. This is compounded by the fact that such a base would “complicate America’s access to key areas in the Indian and Pacific Oceans,” removing China’s key maritime rival in the region, and thus enhancing its security. Furthermore, the naval base allows China access to what China perceives as its territorial waters, protecting its “territorial integrity.”
One might argue that military bases are not part of the BRI, as they are not in its enunciated peaceful spirit. President Xi’s speeches to the BRI fora in 2017 and 2019 lacked any mention of military cooperation; instead, they focused on economic development and partnership. However, would China really articulate its desire to build military bases abroad alongside an initiative it repeatedly labels as providing “win-win” opportunities for the whole world? Furthermore, BRI investments have indirectly given China the leverage to begin these projects. By increasing economic activity in partner nations, China gains goodwill from, and leverage over, partner governments. This is evident in Cambodia. As Edel notes, “given the amount of political and economic support Hun Sen [Cambodia’s president] has received from Beijing, his independence seems increasingly doubtful.” Therefore, the BRI has allowed China to pursue its goal of increasing what it perceives as its national security in a region it perceives as its vulnerability.
One of the greatest threats to China’s national security and interests is the Malacca Dilemma. The Strait of Malacca is the shortest route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China’s reliance on energy imports coming through the Strait means China-bound “ships carrying energy resources could be interdicted by hostile naval forces,” especially considering the U.S. has a superior “blue-water” navy to China. Therefore, to maintain its national security and free flow of energy that is vital to its economic and social growth, Beijing needs to secure alternative routes for energy to continue to flow into China.
Myanmar offers a geopolitically convenient opportunity for China to do this. One of the key BRI projects in Myanmar is a “pipeline [that runs from Myanmar] to Yunnan Province in China.” Ian Storey noted as early as 2006 that a “Burma-China pipeline is appealing to Beijing … [because] oil tankers from the Middle East and Africa would be able to bypass the Malacca Strait.” One might argue that a project that has been considered as early as 2006 is not part of the BRI. However, work on the project officially began in 2015, and it is firmly a part of the BRI according to the South China Morning Post. Furthermore, Wang Yiwei notes how overcoming the Malacca Dilemma is a key objective of the BRI: “alleviating the transport pressure of the Malacca Strait … can also … add to route options for resource transportation.” Clearly, guaranteeing energy security to protect China’s economic development and to keep its tanks, planes, and ships fueled is a key objective of the BRI in Myanmar.
There are other national security benefits for China in Myanmar. For example, China frames domestic conflicts in Myanmar “as an economic development issue, where stability can be promoted through poverty reduction … and Chinese investment.” This is crucial for Myanmar and China, as, historically, “there have been armed skirmishes between various ethnic minorities” that have caused insecurity along the China-Myanmar border, insecurity that Beijing seems keen to remove.
Southeast Asia is not the only region that China borders. Central Asia has historically been a trouble spot for China. Chinese interests in Mongolia drive to the core of what China perceives as some of the greatest threats to its national security.
China has always feared a land invasion coming through the Mongolian steppes. In ancient history, the Chinese emperors built the Great Wall to defend against the Mongolian hordes. In the Cold War, Chinese and the Soviet Union troops repeatedly clashed along their border close to Mongolia. “Moscow … still sees China as a potential long-term threat,” and the feeling is likely mutual, even if relations between Moscow and Beijing are currently cordial. Mongolia has also proven an effective proxy for competing nations “to maintain strategic pressure on China,” a partner potentially hostile great powers, like the U.S. or India, would find useful. As such, the aim of China’s BRI in Mongolia is to guarantee “Mongolia’s commitment to neutrality and non-alignment.” China achieves this by investing in Mongolia through the BRI and then “locking the Mongolian government into long-term investments from China,” which give China leverage over Mongolian policy-making.
China’s fears are not based solely in history. A recent visit by the U.S. Defense Secretary to Mongolia signaled how “Mongolia is eager for investment from the United States,” to wean itself off Chinese investments. Closer ties between Mongolia and the U.S. would certainly raise Chinese fears of Western encirclement, putting China’s national security at risk. But, Mongolia’s overtures towards the West are spurred on by Chinese dominance. Therefore, China’s BRI strategy in Mongolia is about guaranteeing Mongolia’s neutrality and cooperation, which would protect Chinese national security, even if China’s heavy-handed approach has driven Mongolia into the arms of China’s rivals.
Another Central Asian nation in which China has geopolitical interests is Kyrgyzstan, which has abundant energy resources that would help China reduce its “dependence on maritime routes.” Central Asia is also notoriously underdeveloped. As already mentioned, “security is often seen [by China] from the prism of development: underdevelopment generates insecurity and instability.” By helping to develop Kyrgyzstan economically, China is reducing the likelihood of instability on its borders. This also removes the threat to “internal stability, especially in Xinjiang” that unrest in Kyrgyzstan would inevitably cause due to their shared Uyghur populations.
China’s treatment of its ethnic Uyghur population is another reason for its BRI investment in Kyrgyzstan. The international backlash caused by China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang risks China’s “overall social stability,” as it may empower local separatist groups. By investing in Kyrgyzstan, China is leveraging Kyrgyzstan and other “Central Asian governments [into] look[ing] the other way.” China’s large investments have essentially “bought” silence from Kyrgyzstan (where BRI investments are worth more than 10% of GDP) on the Uyghur issue, whereas Turkey (where BRI investments are worth less than 0.5% of GDP) is relatively vocal on this same issue. Silence from a country with a sizeable Uyghur population helps quell unrest in Xinjiang, preserving what China sees as its “national reunification.”
Finally, Kyrgyzstan’s Fergana Valley is an important “overland link between Asia and Europe.” China wants a friendly and cooperative Kyrgyz government because it is an open secret that the question is not if but “when … Sino-Russian co-operation [in Central Asia] will end.” A friendly Kyrgyz government would, similarly to Mongolia, reduce the likelihood of an attack on China through Central Asia, thus increasing its national security, especially considering China perceives the situation in Central Asia as a zero-sum game between Russia and itself.
China’s New Regional Order
At a cursory glance, many of China’s new “strategic partners” in its periphery are authoritarian governments, not aligned with Western perceptions of good governance. A deeper look into this situation reveals an unsettling reality. China, through its BRI, is trying to build a new regional order in the Asia Pacific and Central Asia to displace the Western-led liberal international order. This new regional order manifests itself in varying ways, from new regional organizations which absent themselves of Western influence, to increased Chinese military presence in the South China Sea. Asserting itself as the leader of this new regional order helps China pursue its core national objectives.
Firstly, why is this new order a regional rather than global one? It makes sense that an aspiring global hegemon would want to establish hegemony in its own region before branching out to the rest of the globe. Beyond that, China still derives some benefits from participating in the liberal international order. As John G. Ikenberry, a noted liberal international relations theorist, argues, if China wants to adjust the norms of the international system, then the best way it can do so is to gain influence within the current system. “The most powerful states dominate … and seek to impose their ideas and interests,” in the current system. If China becomes more powerful in the current system, it can impose its ideas and interests. There are also economic benefits for China. Closer ties with the European Union, as noted by Kerry Brown, one of the UK’s leading China experts, have been economically beneficial for China, and there is an “overwhelming dominance of trade issues” in most agreements between the EU and China. It is hard to say if this sort of “conspicuous” participation in the current global order will last much longer. Ikenberry seems optimistic about China’s desire to remain a part of the current system. A Chinese scholar publishing in the West goes so far as to argue that Chinese “slogans such as ‘promoting the New International Political and Economic Order’” are hollow since “most [of their] contents … [fall] within the bounds of the United Nation [sic] Charter and hence are compliant with the current global order,” suggesting a desire in Beijing, at least for now, for China to operate under the current international system. However, if China does not gain a significant say in shaping the norms of the system – something it needs to do to protect its core interests of national unity and territorial integrity, since many nations are highly critical of China’s treatment of ethnic minorities and of China’s claims on Taiwan and the South China Sea – then it is unclear how long China will continue cooperating with the current order.
The evidence suggests that China is working towards building a regional order rather than a global one through the BRI. China has founded many new regional multilateral organizations alongside the BRI, rather than global organizations. Nadège Rolland of the National Bureau of Asian Research puts it eloquently: “Beijing is pursuing a multipronged approach that includes strengthened political relations, economic bonds security co-operation, and people-to-people contacts … many of these relationships are now fostered under the BRI umbrella.” This amounts to what the Brookings Institution defines as an “illiberal ‘sphere of influence’ in Asia.” Organizations like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), are dominated by China and offer a distinct regional alternative to Western-led multilateral organizations. The AIIB offers financial aid and investment in line with the BRI, investments that other multilateral organizations cannot provide. However, these organizations work only within China’s periphery rather than having a global reach. This is evidenced by China’s closer ties with regional partners like Cambodia and Laos rather than with global partners. A report into Chinese debt diplomacy in the Pacific notes how “China has cultivated its attractiveness as a development partner … [because] Chinese assistance is perceived to be faster, more responsive … and to have fewer conditions attached,” suggesting that Chinese-led regional institutions are more attractive to local governments than slower, Western-led institutions like the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. Furthermore, David Shambaugh notes that “China is promoting an alternative set of regional institutions” because China is a more localized regional power than a global one. As a country with limited soft power and no real socio-political model that is “exportable,” it makes sense that China wants to build a regional order to help it pursue its core interests through the hard economic power it holds in abundance.
To understand what Beijing wants from its new regional order, however, we must understand the foundations of China’s interactions with other states on which this order will be based. In 1954, China articulated how it viewed good relations between states. When the People’s Republic was just 5 years old, China and India signed an internationally recognized treaty that set out the five principles that would govern the relations between the two nations. These “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” as they came to be called, are:
- mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,
- mutual non-aggression,
- mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs,
- equality and mutual benefit, and
- peaceful co-existence.
Since 1954, it could be argued that China has not followed these principles in its affairs with India. The two most populous nations in the world have fought several territorial conflicts, and China has repeatedly encroached on India’s sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean. In fact, one might even accuse China of encircling India with its String of Pearls, funded by the BRI.
However, Nadège Rolland argues that Beijing has been articulating a “community of common destiny” since 2013, suggesting a desire to follow these principles on a larger scale. This community’s principles are deeply similar, if not virtually parallel, to China’s Five Principles of 1954. These “new” principles are: building “partnerships” rather than alliances, “‘common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable’ security” focused on Asia, economic “win-win” cooperation, respecting “cultural diversity” (or, more cynically, acceptance of differing political systems), and, finally, concern for the environment in order to serve Chinese economic interests.
How do these principles of a new regional order help China pursue its core interests? The first two principles focus on China’s national security. By creating a new regional security cooperation mechanism, China will be more able to deal with regional security issues that pop up in its periphery. Mutually beneficial economic cooperation and economic concern for the environment will help China’s goal of continued economic growth. The question of respecting cultural differences goes towards protecting China’s intricately woven social stability. As Rolland writes, “rejecting the transformation of nondemocratic political regimes … goes back to the CCP’s primary fear of its own survival.” Furthermore, Kerry Brown argues that China “is unable to propose a world order based on the values it seems to espouse,” which suggests that China’s focus is more regional and more entrenched in protecting its core interests and regime security.
The BRI is one of the main tools at Beijing’s disposal to build this new regional order. By investing in its target partner nations, Beijing introduces the Trojan Horse of BRI that will lead to deeper integration between the two countries. As Rolland notes, “once countries have expressed an interest in infrastructure projects and the accompanying Chinese loans, investments, or aid packages, then several other connectivities that are an integral part of the BRI bundle are also offered and deployed.” This sentiment is echoed by William Callahan of the London School of Economics who argues that Beijing wants “to use economic leverage to build a Sino-centric ‘community of shared destiny’ … which in turn will make China a normative power.” Similar aims are articulated by Chinese scholars as well, albeit more implicitly. Wang Yiwei writes that the internationalization of the Chinese currency Renminbi is one of the goals of the BRI, as it will “promote the process of … regional cooperation.” It does not take much imagination to grasp that greater regional economic cooperation through the Chinese currency is likely to give China leverage over its periphery. Ultimately, China is clearly pushing to create a new regional order through its BRI so that it can pursue its key national objectives. But China’s BRI efforts are not just focused on foreign policy: the BRI tackles several domestic issues that China will face over the coming years.
China’s Domestic Challenges
From unrest in its western provinces to wavering demand for Chinese goods and services, the current domestic climate in China is volatile. It is no surprise, therefore, that Xi Jinping’s flagship project targets domestic challenges as well as foreign ones. This section of the paper highlights three of those challenges and how the BRI aims to “fix” them. A country as large as China will obviously face countless domestic challenges. The following three only serve to highlight how the BRI can fit into domestic as well as foreign policy.
Developing Western Provinces
One of the key domestic challenges China faces going forward is the large development disparity between its rich, eastern, coastal provinces and its poorer, western, inland ones. As has already been highlighted, China views security through the lens of development. The more economically developed a region, the less insecurity it will cause. China’s western provinces, in particular Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Yunnan, are all targets for development since “Beijing has been vigilant about the security of these regions due to their non-Han ethnic populations, histories of autonomy, underdevelopment, and geopolitically important position.” For Beijing, increasing trade relations with Central Asian nations will naturally bring more money to these provinces. From this assumption comes the next, that due to “the fruits of economic development and modernization not only will restive ethnic groups such as the Uighurs and Tibetans acquiesce to Chinese rule but these regions’ integration into the PRC will be assured.” It is important to note, however, that Beijing accompanies these seemingly benevolent economic policies with mass detention of ethnic minorities, particularly the Uyghur population, and the so-called “Hanification” of western provinces, in which Beijing incentivizes the Han ethnic majority of China to settle in the western provinces to overwhelm the ethnic minorities in the region. These policies are part of the wider drive to stabilize the “traditional frontier” regions, suggesting that Beijing places a high priority on guaranteeing the stability of these provinces.
So how does the BRI make these provinces richer and more stable, and how does this all relate to China’s core national objectives? Since a major element of the BRI is the land belt through Central Asia, much infrastructure and investment will be poured through the provinces that border this region. Anecdotally, The Economist notes how “on China’s border with Kazakhstan, a new Silk Road city [Khorgos, in Xinjiang] has sprung up … what once would have been flattered to be called a hard-scrabble border town is now home to 200,000 people, giant outdoor video screens extolling the glories of a new Silk Road.” The BRI has had tangible effects on the western provinces. For example, the BRI has been invaluable to the economies of these provinces. Data from a Chinese blog on the BRI suggests that 98% of Xinjiang’s trade is with BRI countries with Inner Mongolia and Yunnan at 68% and 67% respectively. This confirms “one of the primary rationale [sic] of the Belt and Road Initiative … to find new trading partners for some of China’s poorer regions.” By increasing the wealth of these provinces, Beijing hopes to quell unrest in these historically volatile regions, removing separatist threats. Doing so will allow it to protect its core interests of “national security, territorial integrity and national reunification, China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability.”
Dealing with Chinese Industrial Overcapacity
As the Chinese economy develops into a more modern, service-based economy, overcapacity in manufactured goods and infrastructure will pose a problem for Beijing. As Dominic Zeigler writes in The Economist, China is “faced with overcapacity in steel, cement and more … instead [of shutting down capacity] it must export it.” BRI projects have been helpful in creating demand for this overcapacity. Projects that are panned as “roads to nowhere” by critics make sense in this light.
China faces the Middle-Income Trap that has haunted many of the BRICS nations. This trap, simply put, is when traditionally low-income nations become richer and thus lose the comparative advantage they had in the industries that drove their initial growth.  For China, rising wages in the infrastructure and construction industries mean that it is becoming uncompetitive, despite massive subsidies from the CCP. As such, there is a desire within Beijing to move forward with a “programme of internationalisation … of China’s financial sector,” and modernization of its economy. Perhaps, then, Beijing views the BRI as a medium-term solution to sidestepping the Middle-Income Trap. Firstly, China can win political goodwill and advertise itself as a good economic partner through the BRI. A study on China’s financial sector found that there are “extensive links … between outbound investment and the internationalisation of China’s own banking sector.” Secondly, by increasing foreign demand for its overcapacity in infrastructure and construction by “boosting Chinese construction abroad,” no matter how useful it may be, Beijing can begin to reduce its capacity in these industries while simultaneously not wasting its current overcapacity. China has been seeking to reduce its steel capacity since at least 2018, and plans to move “ahead quickly in high-tech industries and the digital economy,” suggesting a plan to reduce the capacity of China’s construction industry and move towards a modern economy, a transition the BRI can help facilitate.
The CCP’s Legitimacy
The third, and perhaps most fundamental, domestic challenge the CCP faces is that of legitimacy. China fears that what happened to the USSR might also happen to China. As the Soviet economy began to crumble, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union rapidly lost its legitimacy as a ruling party, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet state on Boxing Day 1991. In the words of Minxin Pei, “shaken by the … disintegration of the Soviet Union, [the Chinese leadership] regarded economic growth as the sole source of legitimacy.” Since the CCP, and more importantly, Xi himself, believe “the idea that economic success legitimizes one-party rule in China,” or “performance legitimacy,” and that “social inequalities … have generated social discontent,” it is only logical that China would use the BRI to address these issues and, as a result, shore up the CCP’s legitimacy.
There is no reason to doubt China’s sincerity in hoping to address social inequalities. If the CCP believes social inequality is a threat to the regime’s survival, then it will most likely wholeheartedly aim to address the issue. Yiwei writes that the BRI is partly aimed at “inclusive development,” suggesting a focus from within China on social inequality. The BRI’s focus on developing China’s western provinces is a manifestation of this desire. By pouring BRI funds into these regions, Beijing clearly hopes to reduce the social inequality which threatens the CCP’s legitimacy, and by extent, “China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability.”
Since the CCP’s “legitimacy hangs on creating jobs and investment,” it comes as no surprise that Beijing would want to increase China’s prosperity and continue its absurd economic growth. Pursuing economic growth has many of its own benefits, but its coupling with regime legitimacy means that making sure China has continual growth becomes a key national security objective for the leaders of China. No wonder “ensuring sustainable economic and social development” is articulated by China’s ruling party as a core national objective.
As a side note, some scholars question whether the CCP’s legitimacy does indeed lie in delivering economic growth. However, whether this is true or not is irrelevant. While the CCP and Xi believe in “the doctrine of ‘performance legitimacy,’” they will continue to pursue policies aimed at delivering substantial economic growth. The BRI, in opening trade relations with neighboring nations, will likely continue to do so effectively.
The current discourse on the rise of China is focused on both the question of whether China poses a threat to the U.S.’s role as the global hegemon and on whether the U.S. should be more assertive against China. This paper has attempted to illuminate this discourse by focusing more on China’s motivations for its visible policies undertaken under the BRI umbrella, rather than on their consequences. By outlining China’s motivations, hopefully Western policymakers can be better informed about their global adversaries and thus make better policy to help achieve their goals.
This paper began by defining the BRI as a Sino-centric push to build infrastructure and increase trade, cultural, and diplomatic relations between China and nations signed up to it since Xi Jinping announced it in 2013. After this definition was clarified, the paper moved on to argue that Chinese core national interests, especially in its periphery, are causally linked with security for the Chinese nation, its people, and its regime. As such, the motivations behind the BRI all, to some extent, pursue China’s core national objectives, and therefore, China’s security.
These motivations are geopolitical opportunities, creating a Sino-centric regional order and facing up to China’s domestic challenges. By looking at the destinations of BRI investments, this paper found there is no geopolitical direction behind the BRI; rather, it focuses on taking advantage of geopolitical opportunities wherever they arise. Five case studies in Southeast and Central Asia showed that the BRI can help China pursue its core national objectives like national security and protecting China’s social stability by taking advantage of these geopolitical opportunities.
China is also aiming to build a new regional alternative to the American-led international order. The BRI helps Beijing achieve this essentially by setting China up as the predominant power in its region. In doing so, China is creating an order that follows the principles of the “community of common destiny,” principles that have helped China pursue its core national interests. Crucially, though, it must be noted that China is still a participant in the current global system, as it derives benefits from it. It is the regional order that China is trying to supplant through its application of the BRI.
Finally, Beijing faces many domestic challenges, challenges that it believes the BRI can solve. Economically and socially developing its western provinces to prevent ethnic tensions, sidestepping the Middle-Income Trap by exporting industrial overcapacity, and providing continued growth to ensure the CCP’s legitimacy are all challenges the BRI helps tackle. These challenges pose problems to China’s core interests, and solving them means China can guarantee its national security, by removing ethnic tensions, guaranteeing the country’s social stability, protecting China’s territorial integrity, and providing continued economic and social development in the world’s most populous country. China is notoriously opaque when it comes to allowing foreign nations to understand its policy motivations. By looking at China’s actions, CCP articulations, and Chinese and Western scholarship on the BRI, this paper has attempted to glimpse Beijing’s motivations behind its monolithic BRI. In doing so, hopefully we can begin to better understand Beijing’s actions.
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