The “Belt and Road Initiative” in Geopolitical Perspective

Date: Nov. 17, 2019
Place: Berlin, Germany

What is geopolitics?

It is the analysis of the geographic influences on power relationships in international relations. Geopolitics offers methods of studying foreign policy to understand, explain and predict international political behavior through geographical variables. 

Overview of BRI

The rise of China is the most significant geopolitical event in the 21st century, and “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is probably the most important geopolitical strategy of China.  

After the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, the US geostrategy focused on the Middle East and Central Asia rather than East Asia and West Pacific where China is located. In the meantime, China seized the opportunity of joining the WTO in 2001 and has achieved an unprecedented economic development in world history. As a rising power, China’s GDP surpassed Japan in 2010 and then became the second largest economy in the world, and its military capabilities are getting much stronger too. 

These changes make the ruling power of the world—the US, increasingly anxious. The Harvard scholar, Graham Allison, uses Thucydides’s Trap to illustrate how tension between rising and ruling powers has often led to war. Driven by the increasing strategic anxiety, in 2012, the Obama Administration began to turn its attention to the Asia-Pacific region and launched the “Pivot to Asia” strategy targeting China, which exerts tremendous strategic pressure on China from the east and the south. 

In response, China’s supreme leader proposed BRI in 2013. Rather than seeking a direct confrontation with the United States in Asia-Pacific region, China turned its attention westward to the Eurasian continent and Indian Ocean. Beijing emphasizes BRI is an initiative of promoting “peaceful development and economic cooperation” which follows the principle of “extensive consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits”, and its ultimate goal is building “a community of shared future for mankind”. Meanwhile, Beijing has repeatedly denied that BRI contained any geopolitical ambition.

However, 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, therefore it is widely regarded as the most ambitious geo-economic and geopolitical strategy the world has ever seen.

In order to counterbalance BRI, the so-called “Indo-Pacific Strategy”, which was originally proposed by Japan and supported by Australia and India, and finally accepted by the United States, emerged. From a geopolitical perspective, China’s BRI and the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” of the US may reproduce the classic confrontation between land power and sea power in history, and determine the world order and human destiny in the 21st century.

Therefore, it is meaningful and essential to conduct a complete and thorough research on BRI from geopolitical perspective. Until now, considerable research efforts have been focusing on studying BRI and its implementation from the perspectives of development studies, regional economic cooperation, and environmental and social impacts. There is still a lack of research to find out Beijing’s strategic motives and intentions from geopolitical perspective, to study the influence of Chinese traditional geopolitical thinking and practices on the forming of BRI, and to evaluate the geopolitical theories and practices of the People’s Republic of China and their impacts upon BRI, to assess the geopolitical responses from other stakeholders, especially the United States.

Research objectives

My research aims to analyze the motives, intentions, evolutions, and challenges of BRI and its impacts on international order from geopolitical perspective. Another objective of mine is to help industries and the public to achieve a better understanding of BRI and its geopolitical implications, so that they can better respond to the probably most ambitious development initiative and geopolitical strategy the world has ever seen.

Arguments

BRI is more than an economic cooperation and development initiative. From the very beginning, BRI is a geo-economic and geopolitical strategy of China. Through BRI, Beijing tries to use its advantages of infrastructure delivery, huge production capabilities, and state-led model, as well as its own developmental experience, to establish a wide geo-economic and geopolitical space for China’s rise ('the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation') and offset the enormous strategic pressure exerted by the United States (and Japan) through “Pivot to Asia”, thus China’s geopolitical difficulties could be reduced.

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. However, it may also lead to the strategic overstretch of China’s national strength due to its overlarge ambition. In this sense, BRI could be a turning point in the process of China’s rise. The world’s ruling power, the United States, will neither ignore nor accept BRI, but will use a variety of geo-economical, geopolitical, and even military means to counterbalance it. “Indo-Pacific Strategy” could become a key geopolitical strategy of the US against BRI. In the meantime, many countries will face the dilemma of taking sides between the United States and China.

The classic geopolitical theories still have a strong impact on Chinese academics and policy makers. The BRI concept is inspired and influenced by geopolitical theories including land power and sea power. One typical example is China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is an effort of China to avoid the so-called “Malacca dilemma”.

The traditional Chinese geopolitical thoughts have also impacts on the forming of BRI. (1)China was and will be the center of the world, and BRI helps China restore its historical greatness. (2)According to the traditional Chinese geopolitical thoughts, central China is critically important for seizing entire China, and Eurasian continent plays a similar role as central China should China pursue a global vision. (3)Traditionally, China is a land power, however, after 1978 the focus of China’s development has been its southeastern coastal provinces. With BRI, China pursues a more balanced geo-economic and geopolitical strategy by reducing regional economic development disparity, thus, China's western inland region will be paid more attention.

Geopolitics is also resource politics. Another important goal of China’s BRI is to safeguard its supply of raw materials and energy.

BRI is related to globalization. Through BRI, China tries to promote a new round of globalization as a shaper rather than follower.

With the advancement of BRI, the security risks increase as well because many host countries are not stable. This would make Chinese overseas military presence increasingly possible.

The geopolitical competition for Eurasian continent between great powers is returning. China’s BRI and the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” of the US would be the two most important geostrategies in the 21st century. BRI is a development-oriented strategy, but it does not mean that there is no security consideration. Indo-Pacific Strategy is security-oriented, but it also includes the dimension of economic development.

Although Russia currently shows a high degree of readiness for cooperation with BRI, there is still a contradiction between China’s BRI and the Russian-led “Eurasian Economic Union” in the long run. The competition for Central Asia reminds us of the “Great Game” over Central Asia between the British Empire and the Russian Empire in the 19th century.

The large-scale advancement of BRI will also intensify the ideological confrontation between China and the US (possibly other western countries plus Japan und India) in the ideological field, namely China’s authoritarianism, 'a community of shared future for mankind', and state-led development model against liberal democracy, universal values, and free market economy of the US.

In conclusion, BRI is an extremely ambitious plan, and it will affect the whole world and all of us.