By Huang Yiyi
A decade ago, amid much fanfare, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road program, a grand plan to build a global infrastructure and supply chains that would connect China to the rest of the world in a modern and many-pronged Silk Road – and hypothetically benefit everyone involved.
Next month, Beijing will host the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, with confirmed attendance from a number of world leaders and representatives from 90 countries, state news agency Xinhua reported.
What started out as a way to boost trade ties, secure energy supplies and invest in global infrastructure has now branched out to include digital, health, cultural, security, and sustainable development projects, some of which have been dogged by labor issues and cost overruns.
Playing off the motif of the ancient trade route that linked China to the Mideast and Europe, Its components are many, and include the Digital Silk Road, the Silk Road on Ice, the Healthy Silk Road, the Space Silk Road, and the Green Silk Road.
In fact, today almost all of China’s overseas cooperation projects could be classified as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Xi has termed it the “project of the century.”
Critics of how China uses its rising power are less sanguine. The United States has accused China of “debt diplomacy” – trapping nations with financial liabilities for major infrastructure projects they can ill-afford and which might be leveraged for Beijing’s political benefit.
$1 Trillion in investment
The forum comes four years after the last Belt and Road summit in 2019, and is part of China’s bid to show off the program’s achievements to the international community after a decade in operation.
The program has sparked some US$1 trillion of investments, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a recent news conference. Around 83% of China’s diplomatic allies and nearly 80% of the 193 UN member states have gotten involved.
Over the past decade, China has signed more than 200 cooperation agreements with 152 countries and 32 international organizations under the plan.
China now spends twice as much on international development finance as the United States, according to the U.S.-based organization AidData, with most of that increase occurring during the past 10 years.
There has been a political benefit as well: Some of those deals have led partner countries to publicly support Chinese Communist Party propaganda on Xinjiang, where China has persecuted 11 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities and sought to erase their culture.
What’s the goal?
Researchers have been collating vast amounts of data and official sources to try to answer questions about the purpose of the Belt and Road — does it fulfill China’s economic, diplomatic or strategic ambitions?
The answer is all of the above.
It facilitates the offshoring of China’s production capacity, offers a powerful tool for the country’s diplomats and is also a key plank in Beijing’s geostrategic framework.
It expands China’s global influence and promotes Xi Jinping’s ultimate vision of creating a China-centered global order.
And with the decoupling of China’s flagging economy from that of the United States, and China’s exclusion from key technology supply chains, China appears to need the Belt and Road Initiative more than ever.
Radio Free Asia is marking the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road with a series of features about how the plan has evolved over the past decade, and its impact on the countries and people it touches.
For example, China has been dialing back investment in overseas infrastructure projects, while boosting it in the digital sector.
The country’s homegrown global navigation satellite system Beidou now spans 165 capital cities around the world, providing broader coverage than GPS created by the United States.
Huawei, which has been widely boycotted by governments in Europe and the United States, built 70% of the 4G networks currently in operation in Africa.
Exporting surveillance platforms
Meanwhile, China has continued to export surveillance platforms for policing and domestic security to at least 80 countries around the world.
The technology sector has become a hotly contested battleground in China’s global strategic plan, which includes exporting its brand of digital authoritarianism, while competing for a share of future markets.
Globally, 2.9 billion people still lack access to the internet, and China has set its sights on the digital divide, hoping to gain the support of more countries by gaining a foothold in emerging markets, where it can position itself as the digital standard-setter.
Indonesia – the fourth most populous nation on the planet – is one of those markets. Nearly half of its 270 million people are under the age of 30, making it uncharted territory for the digital economy.
Yet Chinese telecoms giant Huawei is already charting that territory, offering cheaply built infrastructure, personnel training and government publicity services.
Radio Free Asia has been examining some of the concerns and potential threats posed by China’s monopolistic practices in the region.
China’s digital presence can also be felt across a number of large-scale regional infrastructure projects.
The China-Laos high-speed railway doesn’t just run on Chinese-gauge tracks with Chinese-made locomotives and rolling stock: it also uses Chinese technology in its ID-card verification system and security checkpoints.
Some countries and leaders have tried to resist the “China model,” including former Micronesian President David Panuelo.
In an open letter published two months before he left office in May 2023, Panuelo said China had used a combination of threats, bribes and clandestine infiltration to pressure Micronesian officials to force their strategic and security cooperation goals far beyond the scope of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Radio Free Asia interviewed Panuelo to mark the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to check out the quality of its projects on the ground.
China also bid on the East Micronesia Cable undersea project, later withdrawing its bid amid security concerns.
Ten years on, the Belt and Road Initiative is an important component of Chinese diplomacy, and of China’s global strategic aims.
Indonesia, Laos, and Micronesia have all been the target of a number of economic, diplomatic, and strategic moves from China.
At a time of heightened geopolitical turmoil, the Belt and Road has evolved and expanded into the digital realm, and increasingly affects the daily life of people in its partner countries.
The Belt and Road story is still being written.