The age of China’s Belt and Road Initiative has a simple answer and a more complicated one. The simple answer is that, over a course of two speeches in in the final months of 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced each leg of what would then go one to become China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative.
In September 2013, during a visit to Kazakhstan, Xi unveiled what went on to become the centerpiece of China’s foreign and economic policy. Xi introduced the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), which, along with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) announced a month later in Indonesia, came to be collectively known as OBOR. By 2017, OBOR had been fully rebranded as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, after having the initiative elevated to the Chinese Communist Party’s charter at the 19th Party Congress, its centrality in the Xi era was without question.
But does all of this mean that the BRI, as we know it, is just five years old? The more complicated answer would suggest “no.” In a recent World Bank research paper (PDF), two economists, Cristina Constantinescu and Michele Ruta, identify years of Chinese infrastructure-related exports to countries that would become central participants in the BRI. They note that the 2013 announcements were far from a “dramatic shift” in China’s geoeconomic statecraft, but allowed Xi to imbue “new energy and focus to ongoing trends in China’s trade relations.”
By the time Xi gave his speeches in Kazakhstan and Indonesia, “the pattern of Chinese exports had already seen significant changes,” the researchers write. “Trade data indicate that the group of BRI countries had already seen more than a decade of steady rise in importance as a destination for Chinese exports.”
The finding elucidates an important point about what has become the focus of Xi-era Chinese geoeconomic statecraft. The Belt and Road Initiative was clearly an attempt to brand a set of disparate, and often pre-existing, Chinese infrastructure-related export projects. Recall too that the strategic impulses driving some BRI projects to China’s immediate west had also been given voice in the old “March West” idea, which itself was an acute response to the Obama administration’s own “pivot” to Asia.
What’s interesting too is how little the broad geographic distribution of priorities has shifted before and after the announcement of OBOR in 2013. In descending order, the researchers find that between 2001 and 2017, the top priority region for China was East Asia and the Pacific, followed by South Asia, Europe, and Central Asia, and then the remainder going to other regions, including the Middle East, North Africa, and ub-Saharan Africa.