By Chaoting Cheng
Berlin, Germany, Dec. 23, 2019


Youtube-Link: China's “Belt and Road Initiative” in Geopolitical Perspective​


My name is Chaoting Cheng, I am the founder and Managing Director of DCF Institute, an independent Think Tank based in Berlin, Germany. We are committed to providing deep insights into political and economic affairs with a focus on German-Chinese exchange.

Today I want to talk about China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) from a geopolitical perspective. First of all, I would like to discuss what geopolitics means. In my opinion, geopolitics deals with the role of geography in international political relations and mostly focuses on strategic aims of states. In some sense, geopolitics is the struggle between Great Powers over hegemony, power, and interests. In addition, geopolitics offers methods of studying foreign policy to understand, explain and predict international political behaviours through geographical variables.

Okay, now we talk about China. The rise of China is the most significant geopolitical event in the 21st century, and the “Belt and Road Initiative” (yidai yilu 一带一路; hereafter “BRI”) is widely regarded as the most important foreign strategy of contemporary China. However, whether BRI is a geopolitical “Grand Strategy” or not has inspired huge debates among policy makers, strategists, and scholars. The answers are quite polarized. One is the Chinese official narrative, which repeatedly emphasizes that BRI is merely an economic development initiative dedicated to promoting the so-called “Five Links” (wutong 五通), namely “policy coordination”, “facilities connectivity”, “unimpeded trade, financial integration”, and “people-to-people bond” in the countries along “Belt and Road”. Beijing claims that BRI aims to achieve common development in a manner of “extensive consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits” (gongshang, gongjian, gongxiang 共商,共建,共享). Eventually, peace could be achieved through development. From Beijing’s perspective, BRI is the most popular “global public goods” in today’s world. Meanwhile, the Chinese government always denies that there is any geopolitical ambition behind BRI. However, many western countries, especially the United States, as well as Japan and India, have very different views on BRI. For them, BRI is China’s attempt to export its huge capital and production overcapacities to countries in Asia, Africa and Europe by using infrastructure construction as a means. They are also suspicious of the possible Chinese intention to spread its development and governance model through BRI, namely the so-called Chinese State Capitalism. Therefore, many of them believe BRI is China’s ambitious geopolitical “Grand Strategy” which aims for dominating Eurasian continent and Africa, and China has a hidden, long term vision whose ultimate goal is to pursue expansionism and finally compete against the United States for world supremacy.

Actually, neither China’s claim nor the suspicion of the western countries, Japan and India is entirely true to the facts. In academic circles there are a lot of literature in this regard. In my opinion, the analysis of Dr. Yasuyuki Ishida, a research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, is probably closest to the truth. According to Dr. Ishida,

“After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, the U.S. foreign policy focused on the war on terror and the Middle East, away from East Asia. By the early 2010s, however, in the context of China’s rapid rise and expansion, the then U.S. President Barack Obama pursued its pivot/rebalance policy to Asia as a comprehensive Asia-Pacific regional strategy to integrate various areas of diplomacy, security and economy. In response, the Chinese President Xi Jinping pursues proactive diplomacy concerning the Asia-Pacific, such as peripheral diplomacy, a new Asian security concept and the “Belt and Road” initiative. The BRI is Xi’s pivot to Eurasia to create a Sino-centric Asia.”

This indicates BRI is not the deliberate top-level design (顶层设计) of Chinese leadership, but a strategic response in a Chinese manner to the strategy of “Pivot to Asia” of the U.S.. For great powers, all important economic matters have strategic implications as well, especially the large-scale infrastructure projects are always of geopolitical importance. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, the Trans-Siberian Railway of Russian Empire and the Berlin-Baghdad Railway of German Empire are two typical examples that large-scale infrastructure projects could greatly affect geopolitical landscape. Compared to the previous infrastructure projects, the geographical scope and investment scale of China’s BRI are far much bigger, so that it is widely regarded as the most ambitious geo-economic and geopolitical strategy the world has ever seen.

In this sense, whether BRI is China’s deliberate design or passive response does not matter any more. What is important is that China is continuously investing huge resources in BRI and shifting it from project-driven operation to high degree of institutionalization, such as the establishment of various China-led powerful financial institutions, namely the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Silk Road Fund, and other institutions like BRI Summit Forum as well. China’s efforts indicate it will not withdraw from advancing just because of the increasing critics against BRI. Instead, China is determined to push through BRI with a Whole-of-Government approach. Furthermore, BRI was already incorporated into the Constitution of Chinese Communist Party to emphasize its great significance. Given these facts, if China continues to claim that BRI is just an economic development initiative and deny its geopolitical and strategic implications, then it is not convincing and somewhat a self-deception.

In October 2012, a famous Chinese scholar, Professor Wang Jisi, then Dean of the School of International Relations of Peking University, published an essay in the Chinese state-owned nationalist newspaper, Global Times, with a title “‘Marching Westwards’, the Rebalancing of China’s Geostrategy”. In this essay he argues, “the focus of U.S. strategy is ‘shifting eastwards,’ while the EU, India, Russia and other countries are beginning to ‘look eastwards.’ Located at the center of the Asia-Pacific region, China should not limit its sights to its own coasts and borders, or to traditional competitors and partners, but should make strategic plans to ‘look westwards’ and ‘march westwards’.” According to Professor Wang, “China needs to have new and comprehensive thinking on geostrategic ‘rebalancing’, as the geo-economic and geopolitical situation constantly changes.”

This essay is widely regarded as the origin of BRI. Professor Wang believes China can offset the tremendous strategic pressures exerted by the U.S. and Japan from its east and south. Therefore, a direct geopolitical and strategic confrontation with the U.S. could be avoided by “marching westwards”, so that China’s geopolitical difficulties could be reduced. In addition, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of Russia, the geopolitical vacuum of the Eurasian continent has offered China a golden opportunity.

Sure enough, one year later, China’s supreme leader, President Xi Jinping, announced his proposal to build the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” in September and October 2013 respectively. This shows BRI is indeed a geopolitical and strategic idea. However, Beijing did not anticipate so many negative perceptions of the BRI in western countries, India, and Japan. Given the considerable scepticism and sharp criticism towards BRI in these states, China emphasizes BRI is not a geopolitical “Grand Strategy”. It is noteworthy that the Chinese government has changed the English name of this plan from the original “One Belt, One Road” to “Belt and Road Initiative” in order to highlight that it is an “Initiative” instead of “Strategy”. Interestingly enough, China’s official state-run press agency, Xinhua News Agency, has also issued a ban on calling BRI as a “strategy”.

In September 2019, the German Schiller Institute invited several experts and scholars from the Institute of West Asia and Africa of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to Berlin, Germany for a seminar entitled “The Role of the Belt & Road in Peace and Stability in West Asia & Africa”. I attended this seminar and asked these first-class Chinese experts and scholars about the geopolitical nature of BRI. My questions are as follows:

“BRI emphasizes its developmental orientation, openness, and inclusiveness. However, economic development is only possible with political stability and security guarantee. This is one of the major reasons why China has made significant progress in the past 40 years. The ruling party of China, Chinese Communist Party, has ensured long time political stability under its strong leadership, thereby creating the precondition for rapid economic development. In order to make BRI successful, there must also be a stable international order and basic security guarantee. No matter how China dislikes the United States, China must acknowledge the fact that the United States has established the existing international order and is the major security provider. Is China ready to replace the United States as a provider of international security and other public goods, or does it intend to advance BRI within the framework of international security and order under the leadership of the U.S.? ”

Professor Tang Zhichao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) answered my questions by repeating that BRI is not a geopolitical strategy but an economic development initiative. He said China would not provide security for BRI projects, but would rely on the governments of the hosting countries. Actually he has vulgarized my questions into specific security issues in project implementation, while not answering how BRI will deal with the existing international order and security mechanisms established by the United States. Honestly speaking, I’m not satisfied with his answer. The concerns over the geopolitical implications of BRI will not be addressed until China comes up with a stronger argument, otherwise the scepticism of the international community towards BRI would only increase.

In my opinion, as a world power, China has its own justified geopolitical interests, so it has all rights to formulate its corresponding geopolitical “Grand Strategy”. In contrast to China, the U.S. has never covered up its geostrategies. Each and every American President has his own national security strategy and makes it open for everyone. Professor Shi Yinhong, a famous scholar of international relations at Renmin University of China, warned Chinese policy makers not to pretend to be completely selfless when pushing BRI, because it was untrue and nobody believes that. Actually, China should acknowledge the geopolitical and strategic implications of BRI, while emphasizing its Chinese characteristics:

  • Development oriented instead of security oriented
  • Relation based rather than rule based
  • Integrating strategies and docking project plans with other countries are preferred rather than competing against each other
  • Win-win instead of zero-sum
  • Infrastructure (hardware) as a key rather than exporting governance model (software)
  • No political precondition for economic cooperation

In conclusion, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is much more than an economic development initiative, it is a geo-economic and geopolitical strategy with Chinese characteristics, but quite different from the traditional imperial expansion and strive for hegemony.