How China’s Belt and Road Took Over the World

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How China’s Belt and Road Took Over the World

Mapping the BRI’s growth over its first 10 years – and its transformation from a Eurasian transit corridor to an initiative with global scope.

How China’s Belt and Road Took Over the World

A Chinese worker directs another to load a container of China Railway Express onto a freight train bound to Europe at a railway station in Shanghai, China, May 16, 2017.

Credit: Depositphotos

On September 7, 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a speech at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. Titled “Work Together to Build the Silk Road Economic Belt,” the address evoked the history of the ancient Silk Road, which Xi traced back to a Chinese envoy in the 2nd century BC.

The speech, as befitted its setting, was narrowly focused on China and Central Asia, with repeated references to historical ties. Xi’s original proposal was that China and its Eurasian neighbors “jointly build an economic belt along the Silk Road.” The original proposal, besides being geographically restricted, was also relatively narrow in its sectoral scope. Xi mentioned four areas for cooperation under the Silk Road Economic Belt: policy consultation, road connections, trade facilitation, and monetary circulation (trade in local currencies).

One month later, the Silk Road Economic Belt was joined by the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” which Xi proposed during a similar speech before the Indonesian legislature. The Maritime Silk Road was also circumscribed in both geographic and thematic scope: Xi’s original pitch was limited to “maritime cooperation” with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Those were the humble roots of what became known jointly as “One Belt, One Road,” later rebranded into the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) in English (in Chinese, the One Belt, One Road / 一带一路 nomenclature stuck). Over time, the BRI grew far beyond the original vision to expand into almost every region of the world. As of the 10th anniversary of Xi’s speech in Kazakhstan, 154 countries had signed official documents on BRI cooperation with China, according to the official “Belt and Road Portal” website run by the Chinese government.

The sectors covered by the BRI had multiplied as well. When Xi described the still-evolving vision at the first Belt and Road Forum in May 2017, he still mentioned the original four pillars of policy connectivity, infrastructure connectivity (now expanded far beyond the original reference to “roads” to include railways, ports, pipelines, and digital infrastructure), trade facilitation, and financial connectivity (now including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Silk Road Fund, and other lending mechanisms in addition to the use of local currencies). Added to the mix was a new emphasis on “people-to-people connectivity” in the form of cultural and educational exchanges.

The BRI has spawned even more subsets since then: the Digital Silk Road, the Polar Silk Road, the Health Silk Road, the Space Silk Road, and the Green Silk Road. Far from its targeted origins, today nearly any cooperation project China undertakes in any country around the world could conceivably be categorized as part of the Belt and Road.

Given the initiative’s enormous growth since September 2013, it’s worth looking at how the Belt and Road spread around the world.

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Where the BRI Stands Today

As of September 2023, there are 154 members of the BRI – 80 percent of the United Nations’ 193 member states. At this point, then, it’s easier to discuss who’s not in the BRI.

The holdouts stand out easily in the map above: all of North America, most of Western Europe, and a good part of South America.

Elsewhere in the world, the United States’ fellow Quad members – Australia, Japan, and India – have not joined up; all have their own deep concerns about China’s global ambitions. In the Middle East, close U.S. allies Jordan and Israel are the lone hold-outs. And then there are the 15 countries that don’t have diplomatic ties with China: Taiwan’s 13 remaining diplomatic allies, as well as Bhutan and Kosovo.

Perhaps the most curious omission is North Korea – ostensibly a close Chinese partner that is badly in need of the additional funding that would come from BRI membership. It’s possible that China simply saw extending Pyongyang an invite to join as a bad risk: little to gain and a lot to lose, given North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and heavily sanctioned status. (BRI member Iran is also a nuclear proliferation risk under heavy sanctions, but unlike North Korea it occupies a pivotal geographic location linking Central Asia and the Middle East.)

The regional breakdown shines some light on the regions where the BRI has found the most buy-in. Both Central Asia and Southeast Asia count every regional state as members; North America is the only region of the world where no state has joined. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions also stand out, with over 90 percent of regional countries having signed BRI agreements with China.

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Given that so much of the BRI’s image is tied to lucrative infrastructure funding offers for member states, it’s unsurprising that there is a strong correlation between national wealth and BRI membership. High income countries are the least likely to join, with less than half (46 percent) having signed up. Upper middle income countries have a much higher rate of BRI membership, 79 percent. From there, the rate jumps astronomically, with over 90 percent of both lower middle and low income countries having joined.

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In fact, there are just five lower middle and low income countries that have not signed up, and the reasons for each are obvious: Bhutan, Eswatini, and Haiti don’t have diplomatic relations with China; India has a deep distrust of Beijing (and resents that the BRI passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir); and North Korea, as discussed above, may be too much of a pariah even for China.

How the BRI Got to Now

Just as interesting as where the Belt and Road stands after its first decade is the story of how it got there. The map below shows BRI member counts as of December 31 for each calendar year (aside from 2023, where data ends on September 11).

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Things started out fairly slowly, with just five countries having signed BRI cooperation documents by the end of 2014. All of them are countries on what we can consider the original concept of the Belt and Road – transit points either by land or by sea linking China to Europe.

Things started to heat up in 2015, with 16 countries joining the Belt and Road. Again, the geographic scope is within the bounds of a China-Europe connection. Interestingly, eight European countries joined this year, most of them ahead of the China-Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) summit that was held in Suzhou in November of that year. This was the heyday of what was then known as the “16+1” format, with various countries in Central and Eastern Europe vying to be China’s “bridge to Europe.”

This also marked a major trend in BRI expansion: Many of these agreements would be signed in the immediate lead-up to a large regional summit. That, in turn, raises questions about just how much individual thought China was putting into each agreement, as opposed to rushing to grab as many signatories as possible to showcase at a major diplomatic event.

Without a big headlining summit, 2016 saw a return to modest expansion, with just five countries signing new agreements. By contrast, 31 countries would join in 2017 – a surge driven largely by the first Belt and Road Forum, held in Beijing that May. By the end of the year, nearly all of Central and Southeast Asia had signed on, with the exceptions of Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Central and Eastern Europe has also become a solid Belt and Road bloc, with more members from that region than from Africa as of the end of 2017.

It’s also important to note that, as of 2017, the BRI still largely followed the basic geographic focus first laid out in Xi’s addresses in Kazakhstan and Indonesia. Of the 58 states that had signed up to the Belt and Road by end of 2017, Panama and New Zealand are the only states not conceivably on a map of overland or maritime transit routes between China and Europe.

2018, however, would the year the BRI truly went global.

A whopping 67 countries signed BRI agreements that year, driven by two major summits: the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in Beijing and a summit of Pacific Island leaders on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea. Those two events alone saw 38 countries join the BRI fold: 31 African states just before or after FOCAC 2018, and seven Pacific Island countries ahead of the summit in Papua New Guinea.

By this point, the BRI had lost all semblance of the original Eurasian connection, instead becoming a catch-all for China’s foreign policy in general. BRI members can be found throughout the Pacific Islands region, Central and South America, and across all of the African continent.

2019 was another good year for growth, thanks to China’s hosting of the second Belt and Road forum in May of that year. Fifteen states joined up, 10 of them in the lead-up to the big event.

But things came skidding to a halt in 2020, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed China’s borders for nearly three years. The only addition to the Belt and Road in 2020 was Kiribati, which sneaked in just before the world shut down.

Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau visited China on January 6, 2020 – the first such visit after Kiribati established ties with China in September 2019. This typifies another pattern of BRI growth: Since its announcement in 2013, countries that have cut ties with Taiwan tend to sign up to the Belt and Road as part of their diplomatic embrace of Beijing. Panama in 2017, the Dominican Republic in 2018, Solomon Islands in 2019, Kiribati in 2020, Nicaragua in 2022, and Honduras in 2023 all followed this trend.

Ahead of the FOCAC summit in 2021, China inked deals with most of the African countries that had been holding out; all seven of the countries to join that year are part of sub-Saharan Africa. Another five countries from around the world joined in 2022, and just one has signed up thus far in 2023.

The slow-down in growth is not surprising, given the simple fact that there are fewer countries that haven’t joined – and they mostly have good reasons for refusing and will be difficult to persuade.

Does the BRI’s Spread Matter?

The trillion dollar question remains: How much does it really matter when a country signs a BRI cooperation document? In one sense, of course it matters – such agreements are a handy barometer of countries that have a positive relationship with Beijing (or, at least, did at one point). In addition to foreign governments hoping for increased investment and trade flows from China, the symbolism of growing the BRI to the maximum extent clearly matters for Beijing. That’s added motivation for the signatories: If Beijing is pushing a partner government to sign on, they are likely to do so absent a pressing national interest pulling in the opposite direction (for example, India’s concerns about the BRI passing through disputed areas).

But BRI agreements are non-binding and of little value if not accompanied by actual project contracts. As discovered by Italy, which is reconsidering its membership in the BRI club, a cooperation document doesn’t always mean much in practice. Similarly, the CEE countries, some of the earliest members of the Belt and Road Initiative, have largely become disillusioned with China in general and the BRI in particular.

Indeed, data from the China Global Investment Tracker (CGIT), published by the American Enterprise Institute, shows that the United States, Australia, Brazil, France, and Germany all were among the top investment destinations for China from 2013 to now – despite none having joined the BRI.

This is not to say the BRI is meaningless – far from it. The CGIT also tracked $564 billion in Chinese funding for construction and BRI-related projects from 2013 to 2023. AidData found that China outspends the United States by a 2-to-1 ratio on international development finance – a shift in the balance of global aid that largely occurred following the BRI’s launch in 2013. As Ana Horigoshi of AidData noted in her recent article for The Diplomat Magazine:

In the first five years of the BRI (2013-2017), China bankrolled an average of $83.5 billion a year in overseas development projects, a net increase of $31.3 billion per year on average over the five years prior (2008-2012). The net increase alone is equivalent to the total U.S. average yearly financing in the 2013-2017 period.

But not all BRI member countries are created equal, especially given that much of the raw funding is tied up in “mega projects” worth $500 million or more. AidData further found that “despite larger loans and expanded loan portfolios, BRI has not led to any major changes in the sectoral or geographical composition of China’s overseas development finance program.”

In other words, signing up to the BRI does not guarantee a major influx of Chinese investment or developing finance, nor does sitting outside the Belt and Road preclude benefiting from China’s outward cash flows. Chinese money is largely flowing to the same places and sectors as before the BRI – just in larger quantities.

In that sense, the growth of the BRI is perhaps best understood as symbolic: a picture of countries whose aspirations for their relationships with China outweigh their concerns. With that in mind, the BRI’s reach today is important, if only as a good reminder that the vast majority of the world is not interested in “decoupling” from China.