The Ulterior Motives of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

August 30, 2021 Updated: August 31, 2021

Commentary

Xi Jinping’s ascension to supreme power in China has resulted in a number of ChiCom (Chinese Communist) global initiatives being pursued diligently in the mainland and abroad. Perhaps the most important of these is the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also called One Belt One Road), which Xi announced with great fanfare in 2013, initially consisted of two major components: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Other initiatives have been added in recent years, including the Digital Silk Road, the Arctic Silk Road, the Health Silk Road, and the Space Silk Road.

The “silk road” is a very useful metaphor for the ChiComs, as it carries historical, cultural, and psychological ramifications that can be exploited and propagandized (for example, most Westerners know who Marco Polo was). The ancient Silk Road existed for about 1,400 years, connecting China and East Asia with Europe and the Middle East. Its purpose was the promotion of two-way trade and commerce while providing an overland transportation network to facilitate the distribution and storage of trade goods along the routes. The ancient Silk Road fell into disuse after it was severed when the Turks captured Constantinople (now Istanbul).

The BRI is a modern version of the ancient Silk Road that is intended to interlink Central Asia in a common economic market dominated by Beijing; and expand the authoritarian Chinese mercantilist system to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in order to replace the existing the Western international rules-based order.

Italy
A general view of the Trieste Old Port in Trieste, Italy, on April 2, 2019. The historic city of Trieste is preparing to open its new port to China, with Italy becoming the first G-7 nation to sign on to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure project. (Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

The overarching BRI objective is to develop a global infrastructure controlled by China, with the various “roads” serving as spokes in a wheel that service the hub (mainland China). Another analogy would be a spider’s web expanding ever outward, with Beijing (the “Spider Dragon”) at the center of the web. The infrastructure elements are largely focused on the development of transportation assets that can later be exploited by Beijing to transport the resources and raw materials needed to fuel Chinese manufacturing concerns, as well as support the exportation of finished Chinese goods to overseas markets around the world, including roads, ports, railroads, bridges, etc.

BRI investments also include renewable energy projects, communications infrastructures, and cultural exchanges. The other Silk Roads promote controlling worldwide technology standards, dominating Arctic trade routes, influencing worldwide health initiatives in ways profitable to communist China, and exploitation of space technologies by the People’s Liberation Army.

As described here, the ChiComs believe that the BRI is their ticket to worldwide economic hegemony in the future by “controlling access to key resources, exporting its idle industrial capacity, even tilting the world order in its favor.” That last observation is the key to the BRI, as Xi envisions China becoming the world’s preeminent economic superpower in the not-too-distant future, with his own personal prestige tightly intertwined with the success of this nearly $1 trillion planned investment in 138 countries around the world (and counting).

The Green Belt and Road Initiative Center reported in January that “Chinese investments in the 138 countries of the Belt and Road Initiative show that overall investments in the BRI in 2020 were about US$47 billion.” Thus, the ChiComs’ mercantilist and authoritarian capitalist spiderweb has been extended to over two-thirds of world’s 195 countries (and counting).

Chinese investments associated with the BRI come with strings attached, as they are not grants but rather loans that must be paid back. Countries receiving these investments often pay back the loans by granting the Chinese long-term exploitation rights for natural resources and/or long-term lease arrangement for ports, railroads, and other infrastructure developed using BRI loans. The ChiComs’ loan-payback mechanism has been frequently described as “debt-trap diplomacy,” with an excellent summary of how it all works provided here. The debt trap problem is also exacerbated in developing countries ruled by corrupt dictators who siphon off BRI loans into private accounts instead of their intended use for infrastructure development.

Epoch Times Photo
Sri Lankan road construction laborers work along a road in Colombo on Aug. 5, 2018. Sri Lanka’s central bank on Aug. 3 announced it had secured a $1 billion Chinese loan as the island, a key link in Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, develops closer relations with Asia’s largest economy. (Larkruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)

While the BRI is being used to develop a worldwide transportation infrastructure controlled by Beijing, there is an additional underlying purpose: to serve as a mechanism for promoting the Beijing’s vision of “universal rules and standards” around the world as a replacement for the Western-dominated international order.

While the larger BRI promotes Chinese mercantilism, authoritarian capitalism and trade practices outside international norms, the Health and Digital Silk Roads are a direct assault on international standards in a struggle to control the future. The Digital Silk Road ties in directly with another major initiative, the China Standards 2035, which aims to “set global rules across industries, especially in emerging technologies.” Control the standards; control the technologies.

As noted here, Xi continues to repeat platitudes about “multilateral cooperation and trade and investment” and a “closer partnership for openness and inclusiveness” whenever he discusses “high quality Belt and Road cooperation.” He uses all the latest buzzwords that motivate Westerners these days, too, including “green and clean,” “people-centered,” and “sustainable” without ever defining exactly what these terms really mean. In reality, the words and phrases are window dressing to mask ChiCom intentions aimed squarely at access to and control of natural resources and intimidation of their BRI “partners” when the bills for Chinese loans come due.

In his public pronouncements, Xi has openly propagandized about the supposed altruism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in pursuing the BRI, but the reality is the opposite—just as it is with all of Xi’s grandiose announcements involving multilateral cooperation, mutual benefits, and the “shared future” of mankind. Xi neglects to state that that “shared future” is to be arranged on the CCP’s terms, not on those of the existing free market-based international order. The CCP’s view on “sharing the future” is that China will “share in – and control” any and all countries that can provide the natural resources needed to fuel Chinese industry, and BRI debt traps are the mechanisms to effect that “sharing.” The Captive Nations Coalition of the Committee on the Present Danger: China perfectly deciphers the “Xi-speak” about the BRI in its first annual report (emphasis added): “The practical effect, therefore, is a debt-trap enabled build-out of a global Chinese colonial empire.

Conclusion

Silk road, hub-and spoke, spiderweb, Spider Dragon (Beijing)—all roads lead to communist China. ChiCom altruism is really about ChiCom control, and the BRI is aimed squarely at the latter, not the former! Despite the relentless propaganda about the “benefits” the BRI from state-controlled media and sycophantic voices outside China, the BRI is in reality a clever means for building and controlling a global empire dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. Nations that enter into BRI contracts stand to gain little and lose much over the long haul, including potentially their very freedoms.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Stu Cvrk
Stu Cvrk
Stu Cvrk retired as a captain after serving 30 years in the U.S. Navy in a variety of active and reserve capacities, with considerable operational experience in the Middle East and the Western Pacific. Through education and experience as an oceanographer and systems analyst, Cvrk is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he received a classical liberal education that serves as the key foundation for his political commentary.