ChinaSource Blog PostsChurch and State

Belt and Road Initiative

A Reading Round-up

Last week more than 5,000 delegates from all over the world gathered in Beijing to attend the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, hosted by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s foreign and economic policy framework of promoting trade and offering assistance through infrastructure development. The first BRI forum was held in Beijing in 2017, and since then the program has not only grown and expanded to more countries, it has come in for a fair amount of criticism, with some arguing that it sets debt traps for underdeveloped nations and is a thinly veiled form of neo-colonialism.

With the conclusion of the summit, I thought it would be a good time to round up some good reads on BRI that have been published recently.

Let’s start with numbers. PRNewswire (UK) highlights some interesting statistics (provided by China Daily):

  • China has signed cooperative documents with 126 countries and 29 international organizations.
  • The China-Europe freight trains, connecting China with 50 cities in 15 countries, carried out more than 14,000 trips by the end of March.
  • The goods trade volume between China and countries involved in the initiative surpassed $6 trillion from 2013 to 2018, with an average annual growth rate of 4 percent.
  • Chinese companies' direct investment in countries involved in the initiative surpassed $90 trillion from 2013 to 2018, with an average annual growth rate of 5.2 percent.
  • China has signed currency swap agreements with more than 20 countries involved in the initiative and established renminbi clearing arrangements with seven countries.
  • Silk Road e-commerce is becoming a new channel for economic and trade cooperation between countries. China has established the bilateral e-commerce cooperation mechanism with 17 countries.

The full text of Xi Jinping’s speech, Working Together to Deliver a Brighter Future for Belt and Road Cooperation, can be found here.

Prior to the start of the summit China File published one of their China File Conversation posts in which they posed the following question to a handful of scholars and researchers: “Is this the end of belt and road, or just the beginning?” Here is a sampling of responses:

BRI is not just about infrastructure building or financing; it has become Beijing’s main instrument for achieving its unimpeded rise. Speculating about BRI’s death is therefore equivalent to raising doubts about the ability of C.C.P. leaders to achieve the most important goal that they have set out for their country. They might fail. But they have not done so yet, and they are certainly doing everything in their power to succeed. The rest of the world should get serious about the implications of BRI’s continuing expansion and possible success, rather than standing back and waiting for it to die a quiet death.

Nadage Rolland

Still, for two key reasons, BRI is here to stay. First, the BRI, enshrined in the Chinese constitution in 2017, carries the personal signature of President Xi Jinping and is intimately tied to his legacy, making BRI too Xi to fail. Second, as Italy recently demonstrated, the allure of billions of dollars in investments is still too tempting for many countries to disavow the BRI. This will remain true so long as China offers competitive packages of capital, expertise, and willingness to finance large infrastructure projects in risky and distressed markets.

Jeff Smith

Herein lies the point for other governments: Like it or not, China as a major global actor is here to stay. Recent developments show that even though Washington wants to push back, it is finding it difficult to bring even traditional allies alongside. Italy’s government is the latest of several in Europe to engage positively with the BRI. For those outside China, the BRI remains a good framework through which to shape changes in the global economy as China’s influence continues to grow.

Tim Summer

Although the BRI has encountered significant setbacks and criticisms, too much political, financial, and intellectual capital has been sunk into the project for Chinese leaders to abandon it. As long as Xi helms the Chinese political system, the BRI is likely to occupy a central place in China’s foreign policy. Ultimately, however, the success or failure of the BRI will depend on what China does to learn and adapt from the initiative’s shortcomings.

Paul Haenle

Rather than dying quietly, the BRI is likely to slog along with minor modifications. After all, it is not only Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy vision, but also enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party constitution. Facing criticism and resource constraints, China will try to bring more partners into its projects to share reputational risks and funding responsibilities.

Jonathan Hillman

In other words, BRI isn’t going away!

Also writing in the run-up to the summit was Isabel Hilton. In a piece for Prospect Magazine titled “China’s Belt and Road could have been great but now threatens to be disastrous”  she has this to say:

The BRI is a hybrid initiative that has much in common with Japan’s attempts to stimulate its slowing economic by building infrastructure abroad in the 1990s. Like China now, Japan was an ageing society and its domestic infrastructure needs were saturated. Like Japan then, China hopes to create new markets for its debt burdened economy to avoid politically dangerous stagnation. China’s second objective is to bind partner countries into a Chinese dominated sphere of influence, in which Chinese technological, economic and social standards prevail, and finally to keep some of China’s large but inefficient state-owned enterprises alive by exporting surplus capacity in steel, cement, dam building—and, most problematically, coal.

It’s an excellent summation of the policy goals of the BRI.

After the summit had ended the South China Morning Post noted six key takeaways from the opening speech given by Xi Jinping:

  1. China will not devalue the yuan
  2. Even though there was no mention of the trade war, it was reflected in his speech.
  3. China intends to step up intellectual property protections.
  4. China remains committed to opening its economy.
  5. The Belt and Road Initiative is not just for China’s benefit.
  6. China will strive for BRI projects to be more “green.”

Turning to the implications for the church, in 2016, Brent Fulton wrote a post for this blog titled “One Belt, One Road, One Mission?” In which he noted the gospel-sharing opportunities that may arise from the initiative:

Current presentations and discussions about China’s emerging cross-cultural mission movement often make reference to “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), the Chinese government’s push to develop infrastructure and industry along China’s former silk route.

The assumption is that Chinese business opportunities in the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, and beyond will create natural avenues for Christians from China to live and work in these regions. As a result they will be well positioned to have a Christian witness among peoples who have hitherto had little access to the gospel.

History has shown that the Holy Spirit may use a variety of means to move God’s people forward in the accomplishment of Christ’s redemptive purpose. “One Belt, One Road” could potentially be another one of those means. But drawing a straight line between OBOR and the success of a new mission movement from China may be overly optimistic, to say the least.

Fast forward to April 29, when CNN posted a story about Chinese coming to faith in Kenya.

Every Sunday morning in an affluent suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, the soaring song of Chinese hymns fills the empty corridors of a Monday-to-Friday office block.

Inside a small makeshift chapel, a kaleidoscopic congregation of Chinese migrants gather to pray. Among them are underwear importers, health workers and operators of the controversial new $3.8 billion Chinese-built railway that slices through Kenya, the country's biggest infrastructure project since independence—and a sign of China's growing investment and footprint on the continent. 

Some have married Kenyans, others have Chinese children who speak Swahili as well as they do Mandarin. 

But they all share two things. Each person here has re-rooted their life from Communist China to Kenya, a leading African economy where 80% of the nearly 50 million people are Christian. And they have all decided to openly embrace God.

As I was putting this post together, I was emailing back and forth with my niece, who works in Nairobi. “As I read the article,” she said,” I was sitting in my apartment watching a 15-story building being built next door, where a Chinese man with a huge hat was supervising construction.”

The Belt and Road Initiative is here to say and will most likely have profound geopolitical implications. Is the Chinese church ready? Are the churches in BRI partner countries ready?

Note: The topic of the autumn edition of ChinaSource Quarterly will be China in Africa. Stay tuned!

Image credit: Lommes [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio

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