China’s One Belt One Road Initiative: Paving the Way to a New Global Order?

It’s no secret that China has consolidated international economic power and has begun to expand its own foreign investment abroad. Since the beginning of the current administration headed by Xi Jinping in 2013, the Chinese state has begun to offer loans and investment into other countries in order to “remake the Silk Road trading routes of antiquity” by sponsoring infrastructure projects in Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But, five years later, this concept of “One Belt One Road” is still quite nebulous: what exactly is the Belt and Road and what does it mean for Chinese domestic politics as well as the international system as a whole?

Neysun A. Mahboubi, Research Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China and Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, presented some preliminary findings on these questions at the Perry World House’s weekly seminar series.  He began by noting that Belt and Road is a political project that serves to export China’s domestic overcapacity of infrastructure development, enhance connectivity and hence trade with the rest of the world, aid underdeveloped provinces in Western China, and more broadly demonstrate Chinese President Xi Jinping’s grand strategic vision. But what precisely constitutes a Belt and Road project? Who gets to participate?  And how is China responding to various challenges that have emerged in partner countries?  

Indeed, Mahboubi noted that perceptions of the Belt and Road Initiative have transformed significantly since its announcement in 2013. Many of China’s investments have been directed within economically risky and politically unstable countries, some of which already have been unable to sustain the upkeep of Belt and Road projects. For example, China notably just signed a 99-year lease to control a port in Sri Lanka after the government was unable to maintain it. The biggest recipient of Belt and Road money and benefits is Pakistan; their new administration is now considering renegotiation of deals. However, many of these widely reported cases emphasize Chinese investment failures; it may be that more successful projects are not attracting the same degree of international scrutiny at present.

Mahboubi also emphasized that the Belt and Road Initiative should be thought of in terms of messaging for a Chinese domestic audience. Xi Jinping has used the initiation of Belt and Road to signal that China is outward-looking, forward-thinking, and a leader on the global stage. 

Mahboubi will present his further research on the Belt and Road Initiative at the annual symposium of the Penn Asian Law Review in February. His other writing projects focus on Chinese administrative law and judicial reform. He is also the host of the Center for Study of Contemporary China’s podcast, available here. You can follow him on Twitter at @NeysunMto learn more about his work.

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