Belt and Road initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, is often debated in diplomatic circles as China’s grand strategy to challenge the US hegemony, established post the cold war period, and its dream of positioning China as the benevolent neighbour in the region. The grand design and its synergies between the internal and external objectives also bring to forefront the discussions around China’s soft-power diplomacy, aka Marshall plan by the critics, to fashion a Sinocentric world order (or the least Sinocentric Asian order).
Sinocentric world view – a continuum from the past:
Chinese empires have always embraced on the idea of “tianxia” (all under the heaven) with China as the centre of the civilized world, often perceived as middle kingdom approach or Sinocentric world order. For its neighbours, tianxia is considered as a soft power approach by the empire, as a symbolic acceptance of Chinese emperor as supreme to engage in trade relations with the empire. The acceptance and adoption of the Chinese norms & values and the geographical proximity of the peripheral kingdoms to the Chinese empire defines the power circles within the Sinocentric world order.
Building BRI as a Grand Strategy under Xi Jinping:
A Grand Strategy is often considered as a long-term vision of the country, encompassing the policies and plans for military, political, diplomatic, and economic relations to align & advance in the interests of the nation. It provides a clear vision and a synergy to manage both the internal and external aspirations of its people.
Under Xi Jinping’s presidency, China is increasingly seen as an assertive power on the world stage. The raising economic stature of China and the losing hegemony of the USA in the world order, enabled Xi to call for action towards rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, also referred as Chinese Dream. It is within this context the idea of BRI took the centre stage as a soft-power approach, by rejuvenating the idea of the ancient silk road and correlating it with the current theme of BRI.
BRI – a tool for Peripheral Diplomacy:
The October 2013 conference on Peripheral diplomacy paved the guidelines for China’s diplomatic relationship with its neighbours. It recommends China involvement in ensuring stability of the region, in the economic integration, accelerate the infrastructure capacity and connectivity, and to promote Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road as a means for creating a new Economic order .
BRI – Political, Military, Economics & Foreign diplomacy implications:
On October 2017 at CPC’s 19th Congress meeting, BRI was written into the constitution – signifying its importance in the foreign policy and ensuring the long-term validity of the grand plan.
On the priority front, BRI aims for 1) Policy Coordination 2) Facilitates Connectivity 3) Unimpeded Trade 4) Financial Integration 5) People-to-people bonds as the main goals for development with the participating nations . It is also seen as a plan to promote Xi’s idea of “community with a shared future for mankind” – projecting Confucian values. It positions China as an alternative leader to the USA, and allows Xi to pursue his power diplomacy and greater participation in conflict management with countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa.
The Gwadar port, a flagship project of BRI, under the China-Pakistan Economic corridor provides options for People’s Liberation Army to conduct anti-piracy missions in the Arabian sea along with providing easy access to Central Asia. In 2017, China also launched its overseas military base in Dijibouti. Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port which is surrendered to China’s Merchant Ports handling as a part of 99-year lease provides easy access to China’s naval base to the Indian Ocean Region – raising arguments in favour of “String of Pearls” theory and suspicions around China’s growing geopolitical influence in the region.
In an attempt to promote economic integration and prosperity among BRI countries, China sets up a multi-lateral bank called Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Silk Road Fund (China’s finances) to finance projects for improving infrastructure capacity & connectivity across Asia, Europe, and Africa. It allowed the Chinese’ State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) to invest and implement grand scale economic corridor projects, which would otherwise have invoked lesser interest from institutions like IMF due to the high risk involved – allowing China to be at the centre of investments, manufacturing, and standards setting in the BRI countries, and positioning its investments as a win-win cooperation among BRI countries. In the 2017 BRF meet, BRI was expanded to include new type of economic initiatives like Green Belt Road, Digital Belt Road, and Polar Belt Road.
Under Xi, China reversed the earlier policy of low-profile approach and calls greater participation of China in global governance. BRI serves to project China’s status as a dominant player, while promoting the idea of “good neighbour” theory and allowing China to lead the discussions in the neighbourhood diplomacy. The investments and infrastructure projects helped to initiate large scale economic drives in the BRI countries, tilting the diplomatic preference towards China over the USA as a benefactor and champion of free trade in these regions.
All roads lead to China – China’s dream:
While BRI started as a means to overcome the problem of China’s overcapacity issues, it soon became a strategic tool to Xi’s China dream of creating a Sinocentric world order by engaging its neighbours in economic, political, cultural, and security relations. It is expected to complete by 2049, which is also the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. With more than 60 countries – accounting for more than 60% of the world’s population  included the BRI, it is the largest network of China-centric relationship, connecting many countries from Asia, Europe, and Africa to mainland China.