Will China’s Belt and Road Stretch Further?

Everyone knows where China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) begins, but where it ends remains a mystery. Since President Xi Jinping announced the effort in September 2013, it has expanded to 70 countries, according to state-run media. But a closer look at the list of participants reveals how little the BRI label actually means. Rather than trying to sign up even more states in 2018, China should focus on delivering results, especially high-quality infrastructure, for current participants.

Look for meaning in the BRI’s roster, and you are likely to get lost. Geography is the most helpful lens but it is still imperfect. All 14 of China’s neighbors are listed as participants. This is likely news to India, which objects to the northern part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that runs through disputed Kashmir. But as a rough rule, the BRI is making more progress on the ground closer to China’s borders, not to mention within them. Still, the list also includes far-flung countries in Africa, South America, and even Central America.

For countries hoping to join the BRI, fighting a war at home does not appear to be a deal breaker. Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen all make the list, as does Ukraine, where violence continues despite a ceasefire. This means the BRI label certainly is not useful for investors as an indicator of risk. But for China, this broad engagement could have longer-term benefits. When these conflicts are resolved, Chinese officials and companies will be among the first in line to make deals and deepen Beijing’s footprint.

Many but not all participants are developing economies. Of the world’s 31 low-income countries, according to the World Bank’s definition, only Afghanistan and Nepal are participants. In part, this reflects the limited participation of African states. Participation increases in the lower-middle-income and middle-income brackets and then tapers off for economies at the higher end of the income spectrum. Qatar and Singapore, which are often among the world’s top 10 countries in terms of gross domestic product per capita, make the list.

Political systems do not fully explain the list. Among the participants, there are presidential systems such as Indonesia, parliamentary republics (e.g. the Czech Republic), active constitutional monarchies (e.g. Bhutan), ceremonial monarchies (e.g Malaysia), and for good measure, a military junta (Thailand) and a theocracy (Iran). There is a research project here for an aspiring social scientist. What is clear is that the BRI roster is not over-brimming with countries that receive high democracy scores. New Zealand and South Korea are notable exceptions.

South Korea’s experience highlights the wide range in BRI membership benefits. Despite embracing the initiative, Seoul has yet to cooperate with Beijing on concrete projects. Economic cooperation has been held up by differences over North Korea. South Korea’s lack of BRI benefits might also stem from geography. Despite Chinese rhetoric about the BRI being an open effort, the hard reality is that it reflects Chinese interests and ambitions first and foremost. That is why the BRI primarily looks west, not east.

Go Deeper

Perhaps even more telling is where the BRI does not go. There are still roughly 125 countries that have not joined. That gives China plenty of options for expanding the BRI. One approach would be to recruit some combination of small island developing states and developing countries in the United Nations’ broader Group of 77. The focus on small island developing states, many of which face acute risks from climate change, could even pair well with the BRI’s increasing focus on “green” development.

Politically, however, the biggest prizes are the countries that have been skeptical of the BRI. In that grouping is the U.S., Japan and much of Western Europe. With some creative definitions about what it means to participate, China could add some of these countries to the BRI roster. Japan, for example, intends to provide financing for private-sector partnerships within the BRI. Following California Gov. Jerry Brown’s visit to Beijing in June, Chinese state media claimed that California joined the BRI. If Chinese officials get even more creative, they could claim that some of the deals that President Donald Trump signed during his trip to Beijing are part of the BRI.

But rather than expanding the BRI in 2018, China should focus on deepening it. To date, promises far exceed results. The infrastructure component of the BRI is often trumpeted as a $1 trillion effort. Only a small fraction of that largess has been distributed. To be sure, there are big projects underway, and there is often a lag between infrastructure projects pledges and delivery of financing, given the complexity of projects. But for many countries that have signed onto the BRI, the result is a gap between expectations and actual benefits.

The year ahead might be a natural opportunity to focus on delivering those benefits. This past year’s BRI Forum in Beijing was an opportunity to advertise the BRI’s expansive reach. Every press release noted the large numbers of countries and international organizations that sent representatives. But what does the flurry of handshakes, speeches and signing ceremonies all add up to? With the next major forum not occurring until 2019, the year ahead could be used to make participation mean more than it does today. Quality, not quantity, should be China’s BRI goal for 2018.

Jonathan E. Hillman is director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.