The narrative of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as spanning over 65 countries and gathering 62 percent of the world population, 31 percent of its GDP, and 40 percent of global land area should once and for all disappear now that China has announced the extension of the BRI to Latin America.
Ever since Xi Jinping put forward China’s attempt to recreate the old Silk Road in 2013, observers have considered the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to be a project spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa, encompassing around 65 countries that have signed up for it. The two corridors that form the BRI, the Silk Road Economic Belt (the Belt) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the Road), were perceived as two routes that will stretch over Eurasia or the maritime rimland, respectively, to link China with Europe.
But the Belt and Road Initiative has been plagued by misconceptions ever since its unveiling. Most foreign observes have failed to grasp the complexity of the BRI, but the Chinese government also bears part of the blame, having failed to articulate a clear strategy from the beginning and building it up along the way. In 2014, Xinhua, China’s official press agency, presented a map of the BRI, picturing it as two parallel routes: one maritime and the other one by land. This created the impression that the initiative was made up of two routes connecting China and Europe. Another misconception was that the BRI is an infrastructure project focused on building railways, highways, pipelines, or ports. Both readings were simplistic.
The BRI is not a route, but a smart power strategy (a combination between cultural power and economic power) which aims to wrap the entire world, not only Eurasia and Africa, and which has become the leitmotif of China’s foreign policy. The BRI combines hard power elements, like economic investments, with a soft power strategy, like promoting Chinese culture or improving China’s image, to create an international label for Chinese foreign policy.
In the past three years, the BRI has become a branding strategy, having expanded into every conceivable field: infrastructure, finance, culture, education, people-to-people relations, and political relations between states. The Chinese government, provincial governments, and Chinese companies don’t waste any opportunity to brand a project or an investment as being part of the Belt and Road Initiative, therefore transforming the BRI into a catch-all brand that shines a positive light on China. The Belt and Road and the larger Silk Road concept have become a strategy to position and present China as a global and responsible power that wants to help the entire world through its economic development and foreign investment, thus increasing its political capital and its influence.
The Belt and Road has also stopped being a simple regional project. While China has repeatedly presented it as an initiative for Asia, Europe, and Africa, which is also the way most Western observers perceive it, in 2017 the BRI went truly global. When Beijing organized the first ever Belt and Road Summit in May, among the heads of state in attendance were Argentinian President Mauricio Macri and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. What were Latin American presidents doing at a forum ostensibly about Eurasia? It was just the first step in China’s attempt to extend the Belt and Road Initiative to the Americas. It was also an opportunity to show that the BRI wasn’t limited to infrastructure, but was in fact a smart power strategy, aimed at attracting worldwide goodwill for China.
Another sign that the Belt and Road had arrived in Latin America came over the summer. The Chinese government managed to convince Panama to abandon its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province, and establish relations with the People’s Republic. Soon afterwards, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, paid a visit to Panama to strengthen the newly established ties. Rewarding Panama’s decision to establish diplomatic relations, Wang Yi spoke about including Latin America into the Belt and Road Initiative, calling it “a natural extension,” in which Panama could play “a unique and significant role.”
But the definitive proof that we should start thinking of the Belt and Road as a global strategy came in November, when Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela visited Beijing. Xi, by then established as the central leader of China, with his eponymous thought enshrined in the Communist Party’s constitution, talked about the extension of the BRI to Latin America and the inclusion of Panama and other states from Latin American into the initiative. Coming from the Chinese leader himself, it was indisputable proof that China no longer sees the BRI as being confined to Eurasia or Africa.
Moreover, Wang Yi was back in Latin America in January 2018, at a summit between China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). At the summit, on January 22, Wang invited the participating states to join the Belt and Road Initiative, saying that the region is a natural fit for the BRI.
Together with Xi Jinping’s political theory, the Belt and Road was also enshrined in the Communist Party Constitution in October 2017. This was a sign of its importance and long-term prospects. Would the BRI be inserted into the constitution had it been limited only to some roads and railroads that connect China with Europe? In codifying the Belt and Road as a pillar of China’s foreign policy, Xi also ensured that the BRI will remain a brand that will outlast his rule. In China’s quest to become a global power that actively shapes the international order, as Xi envisions, the BRI has become China’s main instrument.
The Chinese government has recognized that the Silk Road and its image could be used as a popular brand that promotes a positive view of its foreign policy. Thus, China launched a new route, “The Polar Silk Road,” which encapsulates its strategy for the Arctic. Beijing encourages Chinese companies to participate in the construction of infrastructure and the development of commerce along the Arctic routes that would connect China and Europe. It seems that no place in the world is ignored by the ever-expanding Silk Road.
The now-global BRI has largely been successful, not so much in terms of concrete projects, but in the way it has helped improve China’s image. The flurry of heads of state or government, some even from Latin America, who traveled to Beijing in May 2017, in the hope of attractng Chinese investments through the BRI, is a good example of the power of China’s new brand. Precise figures about the amount of investments or the state of projects that are being implemented as part of the BRI are hard to come by, yet this hasn’t affected its shine at all. Joining the BRI has become synonymous with the opportunity to grab a piece of China’s increasing economic pie. Coming on the heels of Xi’s Davos speech in 2017, in which he presented China as a defender of globalization in an age of Western economic populism and protectionism, the BRI has helped improve China’s image as a responsible power.
The most important development of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2017 might end up being not its first summit in Beijing, but the expansion of the project into Latin America. The BRI is no longer a regional infrastructure project, but a global strategy through which China aims to establish itself as the world’s main economic power. And it’s coming to a place near you — wherever you might be.
Andreea Brînză is Vice President of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP). Her research focuses on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of China and especially on the Belt and Road Initiative.