in 2013, when the U.S. and many other countries were still recovering from the
Great Recession, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced perhaps the most
transparently ambitious foreign policy of the new century: the Belt and Road
The name is a nod to the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes that connected China with the Roman Empire and many societies in between.
The modern version envisioned by Xi goes even further.
China is financing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects — including ports, roads, bridges, railways, power plants, telecommunications networks and much more — in partnering countries throughout Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond.
The purpose, China says, is to accelerate and enhance development and trade in order to create new markets and opportunities for China and its partners.
The “belt” in the name refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, a network of roads, bridges and railways across Eurasia. The “road” refers to the Maritime Silk Road, a network of ports and seaways that surrounds Eurasia and connects with the Horn of Africa and as far as New Zealand.
The project also seeks to create six economic corridors that would facilitate the transportation of people, goods and data.
Determining which projects are actually part of the Belt and Road Initiative can be tricky.
Some infrastructure projects that were underway before Belt and Road was announced in 2013 have reportedly been rebranded as part of the initiative.
And many participating countries, such as those in the Caribbean and South America, for example, are not located anywhere near any of Belt and Road’s six economic corridors, or either the Silk Road Economic Belt or the Maritime Silk Road.
The World Bank predicts that, if completed, Belt and Road projects could reduce travel times along the corridors 12 per cent, increase trade between 2.7 and 9.7 per cent, and lift 7.6 million people out of extreme poverty.
But the World Bank also says the policy carries potential risks, particularly for developing countries that may find themselves with unmanageable debt.
A man stands near a mural depicting the ancient Silk Road during the Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April. At the event, China emphasized its commitment to ensuring greater transparency and environmental safeguards in Belt and Road projects. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)
Some countries have already found themselves in that tough spot. Sri Lanka, for example, gave China a 99-year lease for its port of Hambantota to help ease its debt burden.
Other countries, such as Malaysia and Myanmar, have cut their potential debt load by billions of dollars by either scrapping or scaling back projects.
Critics of the initiative, which include U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, use such examples to argue the purpose of Belt and Road is less about trade and development, and more about China using so-called debt trap diplomacy to increase its sphere of influence.
One of the benefits of Belt and Road for China is that it provides plenty of opportunities to put the country’s industrial capacity to productive use all over the world, but some research suggests it does so at the expense of local contractors and workers.
At its Belt and Road forum, held in Beijing in April, China sought to reassure its partners, and potential partners, that the program will have a renewed focus on oversight and guarding against corruption, debt sustainability and environmental protection going forward