In-Depth

by Malcolm Riddell

'How the Pandemic is Changing the Belt & Road Initiative'

Council on Foreign Relations

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Task Force Report on China’s Belt & Road
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March 31, 2021
'How the Pandemic is Changing the Belt & Road Initiative'
'How the Pandemic is Changing the Belt & Road Initiative'
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Task Force Report on China’s Belt & Road

The Belt & Road in the Post-Pandemic World

BIG IDEA | ‘The building of roads, railways, ports, and power plants is giving way to a BRI centered on technology—primarily telecommunications, connectivity, health care, and financial services.’

‘The Belt and Road Initiative is being recalibrated for a post–COVID-19 world.

  • ‘The building of roads, railways, ports, and power plants is giving way to a BRI centered on technology—primarily telecommunications, connectivity, health care, and financial services.’
  • ‘China will also have to contend with the debt and environmental burdens that have accompanied BRI’s signature infrastructure projects.’
  • ‘BRI is likely to emerge from the pandemic as a more slimmed-down, cost-effective, and technology-focused undertaking, but it is not going away.’

‘BRI was initially designed to connect China’s modern coastal cities to its underdeveloped interior and to its Southeast, Central, and South Asian neighbors, cementing China’s position at the center of a more connected world.’

  • ‘The initiative has since outgrown its original regional corridors, expanding to all corners of the globe.’
  • ‘Its scope now includes a Digital Silk Road intended to improve recipients’ telecommunications networks, artificial intelligence capabilities, cloud computing, e-commerce and mobile payment systems, surveillance technology, and other high-tech areas.’
  • ‘And a Health Silk Road designed to operationalize China’s vision of global health governance.’
  • ‘Hundreds of projects around the world now fall under the BRI umbrella.'

‘The global economic contraction has revealed the flaws of China’s BRI model, forcing a reckoning with concerns that many BRI projects are not economically viable and elevating questions of debt sustainability.’

  • ‘Unless BRI-related debt is addressed, countries that are already being battered by the COVID-19 pandemic could be forced to choose between making debt payments and providing health-care and other social services to their citizens.’

‘To some analysts, BRI is China’s primary conduit for pursuing global domination.’

  • ‘This Task Force, however, argues that China pursued BRI primarily to address a number of domestic issues, such as closing the gap between the country’s affluent coastal cities and its impoverished interior, absorbing excess manufacturing capacity, putting its accumulated savings to use, and securing inputs for its manufacturing sector.’
  • ‘Much of Chinese foreign policy is animated by a drive to bolster domestic political stability, which in turn relies on steady economic growth, and BRI is no exception.’

‘Although BRI constitutes a prominent element of Chinese foreign policy, the initiative remains remarkably opaque.’

  • BRI has no central governing institution. China has not published a master list of ‘BRI projects, the terms of which are often negotiated behind closed doors and kept secret.’
  • ‘When projects run into trouble, Beijing often pressures countries to keep all renegotiations private.’
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