China’s One Belt, One Road: Influence Through Infrastructure

Image by Werner Bayer

In the autumn of 2013, China’s president, Xi Jinping, first introduced plans for what has become known as the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, the largest integrated international infrastructure project the country has yet undertaken. The plan consists of a land-based economic belt and a string of ports constituting a ‘maritime silk road’, stretching from China’s heavily industrialised east coast, to Nairobi, Moscow, and Rotterdam. When completed, the belt and road will cover 65% of the world’s population, one third of the world’s GDP, and a quarter of all the goods and services the world moves (McKinsey). Needless to say, the scope and ambition of the project are difficult to underplay.

China is no stranger to grandiose building projects. Indeed, much of its rapid economic growth has been predicated on such development. But the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project has the potential not only to bolster continued Chinese domestic growth, but to fundamentally transform the geopolitical landscape of much of the world, influencing China’s economic and political relationships, and bolstering its standing in the international system.

There are various reasons for China to pursue the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project. First, there is a clear economic rationale. China’s growth rate continues to decline from the double-digit leaps of the 1990s and 2000s, as the country transitions from an export-orientated economy to one driven by domestic consumption. As argued by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project could cushion the effects of economic slow-down while simultaneously encouraging economic regional integration for more balanced and sustainable growth. Not only could this satisfy the country’s immediate economic concerns, but it would also have positive ramifications for the Chinese leadership. Much of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) legitimacy is derived from its ability to facilitate economic growth for its people and regain the country’s international standing as a broader part of its ‘peaceful rise’. By allowing continued and balanced economic growth, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project could consolidate the CCP’s hold on power by addressing the concerns of the wider Chinese population.

By Lommes (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Image courtesy of Lommes.

However, there is much more to this project than China’s domestic growth and stability. The sheer scale and internationalism of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative has important consequences for China’s international relations, influencing how it engages with, and relates to, foreign powers. Given the sheer scale of the project, it is perhaps surprising that it involves no binding state-to-state agreements. Instead, China seems to be focused on flexible trading policies with countries encompassed by the project. On the one hand, this could be interpreted as a part of China’s non-interventionist stance in international affairs, reflecting its position of peaceful coexistence set out by former Premier Zhou Enlai in 1953. On the other hand, the conspicuous lack of formal, binding agreements actually gives China greater leverage in its dealings with other states. It would be naïve indeed to believe that China would have no political expectations of countries benefiting from its immense infrastructural investment. However, the absence of explicit expectations enshrined in binding agreements may disguise China’s own implicit but very real assumptions about the trade and political relations it intends to have with those countries. Consequently, China’s decision not to pursue formal agreements may be of a strategic nature; it gives the impression of adhering to China’s non-interventionist principles while also allowing China unspoken influence and leverage over the countries affected by its ‘One Belt, One Road’ project. Combined with its impressive military modernisation program, there can be little doubt that the project fits into a wider Chinese effort to maximise its economic, military and political clout in the international system.

China’s approach to infrastructure diplomacy is not without its risks. Historically, when the economic interests of states are compromised by a conflict over infrastructure, the situation is rarely resolved amicably. The Suez Canal Crisis in 1956 highlighted the links between infrastructure, economics and foreign policy, and demonstrated that states will readily use military intervention when their key economic interests are at stake. Even the United States, which was vocal in criticising the imperial overtones of British and French military intervention over the Suez Canal, used military power of its own in Panama when it perceived the neutrality of the Panama Canal (and thus its associated economic interests) to be threatened. Clearly, international disputes regarding infrastructure and trade have the potential to escalate into military conflicts. China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ project―which will pass through and involve a large number of states―potentially poses far greater geopolitical challenges than either the Suez or Panama canals, and will therefore require deft and skilful Chinese diplomacy if similar conflicts are to be avoided.

In many ways, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project may serve as the ultimate challenge for Chinese policy-makers in the 21st century. It will test not only the limits and sustainability of China’s economic growth, but also test its soft power strategy across the world. China’s decision to rely on flexible trade policies instead of binding agreements requires dexterous diplomacy, the results of which will both shape and define the true reach of its soft power and influence. Whatever the outcome of the ‘One Belt, One Road project’, it will provide a useful measure of Beijing’s capabilities and a valuable insight into the scope of China’s intentions. The project will also provide an indication of whether China’s rise will continue to be peaceful when its economic interests are at stake.

Image courtesy of Werner Bayer (Own work) [CC0 1.0] via Flickr

Dilhan Salgado D'Arcy

About Dilhan Salgado D'Arcy

Dilhan studies International Relations at the University of St Andrews. In addition to his degree, Dilhan has served as a Student Ambassador for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and interned with the Centre for Global Constitutionalism, a leading research institute in the School of International Relations at St Andrews. His interests range from international security and development to the evolving roles of rising powers.

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