Locating the Belt and Road in China’s Broader Policy Shifts

The Belt and Road initiative is part of a broader Chinese policy reorientation where its leaders are responding to the challenges and opportunities of a fraying United States–led international order. The B&R was envisaged to gain strategic depth in the inner Asian hinterland to counteract geostrategic pressure from the US–Japan alliance as well as to buy time to reform a highly imbalanced domestic political economy.

The disintegration of the ancient Silk Route across Eurasia 600 years ago was a transformational event. Providing maritime powers with the upper hand, the collapse of the continental webs of communications altered the evolution of subsequent events in world history. Asia’s later eclipse is often traced to the stasis of the Indian and Chinese empires leaving them in an unequal contest against a dynamic West. The 21st century has turned the tables dramatically as Asian resurgence appears poised to restore these states to their historical positions as leading economic centres. Leading from the front is China, which has positioned itself to resume its role as the engine for Asia. Evoking admiration and fear in equal measure, the Chinese through their Belt and Road (B&R) idea are claiming to remake Eurasia’s geo-economic landscape.

A question being posed in every foreign office and corporate head office is: what are Chinese motivations in this initiative? Some can be discerned overtly, while other drivers are less obvious. The B&R is a manifestation of a broader policy shift in China, where its leaders are responding to the challenges and opportunities of a fraying and unsustainable United States (US)–led international order. The context and timing of the idea’s origins suggests that it was intended to gain strategic depth in hinterland and inner Asia, to counteract geostrategic pressure from the US–Japan alliance as well as to buy time to reform a highly imbalanced domestic political economy. The B&R should be understood as part of the 2013–14 foreign policy shifts that provided concurrent stress on development, security and regional order-building.

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