There has been plenty of ink spilled on the subject of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) over the past few years. The BRI is a foreign policy concept and global infrastructure plan announced by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013. Opinions on its strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and likely outcomes are not in short supply, but there is a dearth of data on the projects actually involved.
Whether you think it's all about “inclusive globalization,” or believe it to be the “riskiest environmental project in history,” any assessment of the BRI should include an understanding of the ports, railroads, power stations, and other infrastructure that we collectively speak of as the Belt and Road.
Unfortunately, there is a palpable lack of information concerning these projects. This year for instance, there has been a whirlwind of articles exploring the dangers of Beijing’s predatory lending habits, or “debt trap diplomacy,” however, the literature rests on a fairly thin body of data.
This is, in part, because BRI projects are incredibly difficult to research in offices far from where the action is taking place. I know because I’ve done it. My own experience researching the BRI has taught me that projects tend to be characterized by either conflicting accounts or a total lack of information. This contrasts starkly with infrastructure projects funded by multilateral development institutions like the World Bank, which come with dozens of detailed documents. However, you would be hard-pressed to find a single PDF among the forty-odd projects that comprise the relatively well-defined China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), BRI’s flagship corridor.
That’s why The China Road Project, a team of researchers and a photographer interested in China’s role in global development, feel the need to travel 60,000 kilometers over land and sea investigating the initiative. By gathering information on the infrastructure projects that make up the BRI, we hope to help close the information gap and shine a light on the Belt and Road.
Original field research on the BRI is not unheard of (Bloomberg Markets is one excellent example) but such reports understandably focus on a handful of big-name locations along the Belt and Road like Hambantota and Gwadar. High profile journalists simply don’t have the time to spend months and years traveling the Belt and Road.
Luckily, we find ourselves in the privileged position of being able to linger long and travel wide. Although we won’t be able to visit the many hundreds of projects that might be considered part of the Belt and Road, we do hope to provide a more comprehensive snapshot of the initiative.
Plotting our journey along the Belt and Road
The BRI brand has been liberally applied to almost any human endeavor - from bodybuilding competitions to outer space - but the meat and bones of the BRI is hard infrastructure and the soft connectivity that facilitates its use. Power stations, railroads, highways, even fiberoptic cables and business parks - these are the tangible aspects of the BRI at the ground-level.
Yet, you won’t find a definitive list of BRI projects, nor official criteria for what is and isn’t the BRI. Instead, delineating BRI projects involves making a judgement call as to which projects best represent the ambitions and characteristics of the Belt and Road as a whole. The Belt and Road is a foreign policy concept - one that seeks China-led development in order to achieve (ideally mutual) economic prosperity and what Beijing calls a “community of common destiny.” On the ground, the BRI is characterized by Chinese money and Chinese companies - it is, after all, a Beijing-led, Beijing-funded initiative. Many of the big BRI projects are facilitated by loans from Chinese policy banks like the Export-Import Bank of China (EXIM) and carried out by Chinese companies and state-owned enterprises.
Armed with a list of projects that are associated with BRI rhetoric and which primarily involve Chinese-state financing and companies, we are plotting a route that allows us to see as much of the Belt and Road as possible.
Our project entails a journey across the Eurasian supercontinent. In rhetoric, the BRI extends as far as Latin America, but it is fundamentally a Eurasian vision. This is made most explicit in writings by Chinese academics on the BRI. Ming Hao, for instance, describes the BRI as facilitating the rejuvenation of ancient continental civilizations in relation to the modern maritime powers of Europe and the United States. This reading of history is possibly a little dramatic, but the glory of the ancient pan-Eurasian Silk Road is fundamental to the BRI narrative; it’s a story powered by ambitions for renewed East-West connections over land and the development of impoverished interior territories.
Connectivity is the central pillar of the BRI story - specifically connectivity with China. We seek to test the connective sinews that constitute the BRI by approaching Beijing from the West, along the overland “belt” portion of the initiative, before returning to Europe by cargo ship, along the maritime “road” portion through Southeast Asia and across the Indian Ocean.
Europe’s role in the Belt and Road is complicated. On the one hand, developed European economies are not as desperate for infrastructure as some of the developing countries that the BRI aims to transform. Stringent EU rules governing infrastructure finance and implementation, such as procurement practices, also preclude Beijing from going about business as it does elsewhere in the world. There is also the reality of geopolitical competition (or at least strategic wariness) between the EU and China that further complicates the relationship. European leaders have shown themselves skeptical of the Sino-centric nature of Beijing’s Belt and Road plans.
On the other hand, Western Europe is the terminus of the much-hyped trains traversing the rejuvenated “New Silk Road.” It’s a fantastic potential market, and it already receives a sizable bulk of Chinese overseas investment. In Europe’s southeast, countries are more open to the idea of Beijing-led infrastructure. Montenegro, for example, which belongs to China’s controversial 16+1 grouping of Central Eastern European countries, is already receiving more financial help for infrastructure projects from Beijing than it does from the EU. It is worth noting however, that infrastructure financing from Brussels still dwarfs funds from Beijing in all EU member states.
Our journey will proceed through the Balkans and Greece, entering Asia at the historical juncture between the two continents: Istanbul. We will drive the length of Turkey, investigating Chinese investments and hoping to discover more about the dynamic relationship between these two curiously aligned powers. From the Caucuses we will take the trans-Caspian route into Kazakhstan to begin the Central Asian leg of our journey.
In absolute terms, BRI investment in this sparsely populated ocean of land is not terribly significant. Central Asia is, however, key to the idea behind the BRI - of leading the left-behind into a new stage of development spurred by connectivity with China. It’s also the heart of the ancient Silk Road, a mixing palette of Russian and Chinese influence, and it was here, in Kazakhstan, where Xi Jinping first unveiled the overland portion of his Belt and Road plans.
We will snake across Central Asia visiting each country in the region barring Turkmenistan, whose arduous visa regime makes it prohibitively expensive to traverse. In Almaty, we will reluctantly drop off our vehicle since strict regulations in China make it nearly impossible to complete our trip to Beijing by car. Instead, we will take the usual combination of buses, trains, and hired drivers to continue our pilgrimage. Our journey across the historic silk route will continue through the ancient capital of Xi’an to China’s present-day capital and Belt and Road headquarters, Beijing, and finally on to the vaunted Chinese tech mecca of Shenzhen.
Our journey in Southeast Asia is organized around the official China-Indochina Peninsula and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridors. With a host of complex issues to bear in mind, from ASEAN-centrality to Mekong River concerns, this will be the longest and most diverse leg of our journey. This is also the area of the world in which we expect to see the largest Chinese presence, particularly when it comes to ecommerce agreements and the futuristic sounding “digital Silk Road.”
The final leg of our journey will mostly be spent on cargo ships. Admittedly, returning to Europe via the Maritime Silk Road and across some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes is appealing because it has a certain narrative neatness to it, but we also aim to make port calls along the way. Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia are on the agenda.
Of course, with a trip like this, flexibility is a must. Political restrictions in places like Myanmar change rapidly, and new projects are constantly being launched, some of which might end up more attractive than projects on the original to-do list. Throughout the journey, we expect to encounter a significant number of externalities beyond our control as well as new leads that shouldn’t be ignored. Ultimately, we believe that equipping ourselves with as much knowledge as possible, a good provisory plan, and an openness to change is the best way to plot the trip.
Whichever way the road map is ultimately drawn, the most important item to bear in mind will be our project aims. As stated on the “mission” page of our website, our objectives are two-fold. First, we want to shine a light on the Belt and Road Initiative, providing original data on projects that can help journalists, researchers, and decision-makers better understand an under-researched foreign policy concept that will define our century. Secondly, we want to bring the Belt and Road into focus by tracking not only the physical processes of development, but also by exploring the human dimensions of these changes - by telling the story of what the Belt and Road means to individuals whose lives are being transformed by the roads, railroads, and power stations crisscrossing our continent.
Jacob Mardell is a researcher at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin. He focuses on China’s regional policy and global infrastructure foreign policy in Asia as well as works on the database behind MERICS’ widely used Belt and Road maps. Follow his journey via Twitter at @the_china_road or the website.