Up until 2016, it was called the OBOR (One Belt One Road) Strategy, whereas nowadays, we refer to it as the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). To avoid misunderstandings, the word “one” was eliminated from the equation and “strategy” was replaced by “initiative” to avoid making other geopolitical players suspicious. Regardless of the name we use, it represents an extremely ambitious initiative of China to expand its influence through massive international investments in infrastructure, so as to ultimately re-create the Silk Road from a land corridor perspective and also establish a maritime Silk Road.
The term “ambitious” is most likely a severe understatement, as the total costs are estimated to lie in the $4 trillion to $8 trillion region, with the main completion date goal being the year 2049, so as to finalize everything during the year in which the People’s Republic of China turns 100. As such, we’re looking at a multi-trillion-dollar project that spans 152 countries, mostly in the Eurasian region but with ramifications all the way to East Africa, Oceania and South America.
Broadly speaking, the main components of the Belt and Road Initiative are:
- The Silk Road Economic Belt, which aims to re-create the Silk Road and through a combination between massive spending on land infrastructure (primarily roads and railroads) and a common framework between the nations involved so as to facilitate the security of the region, generate unprecedented conditions for increased trade. Think of it as the original Silk Road on steroids, with three dimensions: the Southern one (from China to South/Southeast Asia and ultimately the Indian Ocean), the Northern dimension (from China to Russia and ultimately Europe) as well as the Central counterpart (from China to the Persian Gulf/Mediterranean area)
- The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the sea navigation-oriented alternative to the Silk Road Economic Belt. Its main goals revolve around facilitating trade in the highly-disputed South China Sea as well as the South Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean
- The Ice Silk Road, an initiative of China and Russia to even facilitate trade through a so-called Ice Silk Road, in the Arctic area
… all in all, this is a remarkably comprehensive program, aimed at strengthening ties between countries, especially (but not exclusively) nations with similar geopolitical interests. For example, quite a few of the countries involved are AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) members. Again, though, the “especially but not exclusively” nuance is worth repeating.
Up until this point, significant progress has been done with respect to actually getting the countries involved on board, with 126 of 152 nations ratifying their willingness to cooperate and in several cases, there has already been tangible progress one can consider noteworthy.
What is the geopolitical symbolism associated with the BRI?
Simply put, China is essentially stepping up in areas when it comes to which the Western world has been slacking since the 80s, areas revolving around… you’ve guessed it, infrastructure, more specifically transportation infrastructure.
Is the initiative primarily geopolitics-driven?
Most likely yes, because as visible in other areas (including surprising ones such as environmental issues, especially after the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement), China is interested in taking over some of the global leadership roles the US is stepping away from. Other geopolitical players such as Russia, who have claimed it is time for a multi-polar geopolitical landscape rather than a US-dominated one, are of course satisfied with these developments, especially in light of the fact that they are on the receiving end up many of the aforementioned China-led investments.
Geopolitically-driven or not, however, the results of the BRI are as tangible as it gets… and at great financial costs to China. Should China prove to be able to handle the significant financial burden this initiative comes with, it is quite likely that the 2049 geopolitical landscape will indeed be at the very least bi-polar (China and the United States).