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  • The Belt and Road Initiative:China's New Grand Strategy?
  • Michael Clarke (bio)

In 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping unveiled major components of what has since become known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). During an address to Nazarbayev University in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on September 7, Xi announced China's desire to "jointly build an 'economic belt' along the Silk Road" with Central Asian partners to "deepen cooperation and expand development in the Euro-Asia region."1 A month later, in an address to Indonesia's parliament, China's president encouraged Southeast Asian states to work with China to develop the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Subsequently, China has put more "meat" on the bones of such aspirational statements through the identification of six core "economic corridors" linking the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road; the establishment of supporting multilateral financial institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and Silk Road Fund (SRF); and the publication of an official "blueprint" by the National Development and Reform Commission for the implementation of BRI.2 Beijing has also backed the initiative with a considerable financial commitment, earmarking $40 billion for the Silk Road Economic Belt, $25 billion for the Maritime Silk Road, $50 billion for the AIIB, and $40 billion for the SRF.3

This ambitious agenda has sparked a variety of reactions among governments throughout the regions encompassed by the initiative and by external commentators and analysts. In the main, there have been three major interpretations of BRI. The first view holds that BRI is driven by [End Page 71] Beijing's geopolitical goals to break perceived U.S. "encirclement" in the Asia-Pacific and constrain the rise of India.4 A second view emphasizes the economic underpinnings of the initiative. Here, BRI is seen as a direct outgrowth of China's economic travails after the global financial crisis, notably its long-standing desire to redress economic imbalances between its coastal and interior provinces and to find outlets for excess production capacity. In this view, geopolitical gains that may come from the success of BRI are welcome but of secondary importance.5 Finally, others have pointed to BRI as an outgrowth of Beijing's increasing desire to augment its growing economic and strategic influence with a "soft power" narrative that presents China as an alternative leader to the global hegemony of the United States.6

This essay presents two interconnected arguments in this context. First, it suggests that BRI is clearly motivated by Beijing's desire to resolve long-term domestic, economic, and geopolitical challenges. Domestically, BRI is guided by China's ongoing state-building agenda in its traditional frontier regions (such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Yunnan). Economically, BRI flows from the quest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to ensure the ongoing economic growth on which its legitimacy depends by finding new outlets for Chinese capital and exports. Geopolitically, BRI with its focus on developing trans-Eurasian connectivity centered on China, speaks to Beijing's desire to construct a viable strategic and economic alternative to the current international order. Second, BRI constitutes a grand strategy that integrates these factors in pursuit of Beijing's decades-long goal of returning to great-power status without provoking overt counterreactions from its neighbors and the United States. As such, BRI did not spring fully formed from the mind of Xi but builds on the corpus of foreign and security policy concepts bequeathed by his successors. Most significantly, BRI represents an overturning of Deng Xiaoping's famous maxim of "biding time and building capabilities." Xi's vision, embodied in BRI, posits China's continued economic development and stability as an engine of regional and global stability. [End Page 72]

BRI: State-Building, Economics, and Geopolitics

A key challenge for Beijing since the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 has been to integrate its traditional frontiers of Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Yunnan. For much of the PRC's existence, Beijing has been vigilant about the security of these regions due to their non–Han Chinese ethnic populations, histories of autonomy, underdevelopment, and geopolitically important position. In the "reform...