JPRI Working Paper No. 124 (January 2019)
US misgivings about the Belt and Road Initiative
by David Arase


The US and like-minded liberal states, most notably the ‘Quad’ (US, Japan, Australia, and India), have been discussing cooperative efforts to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) (Panda 2018). This arises in response to the ‘Chinese Dream’ agenda of ‘national rejuvenation’ launched by Xi Jinping when he became China’s leader in 2012 (Xinhuanet 2012). This agenda aims to achieve moderate household affluence by 2021 (the centenary of the birth of the Communist Party of China, or CPC); and then to achieve nothing less than leadership in all spheres of national endeavor and occupy center stage of world affairs by 2049 (the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China under CPC rule). Xi Jinping’s pursuit of this Chinese Dream agenda is now driving profound change the Indo-Pacific region.

The Chinese Dream agenda

The Chinese Dream (中国梦) affects the Indo-Pacific region because China intends to achieve regional dominance by 2049. There are three mutually supportive core elements in this aspect of the Chinese Dream agenda.

First is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, 一带一路) to construct a system of Eurasian economic connectivity built and managed by China to assist China’s continuing growth and structural development. The idea is to secure direct and privileged access to markets and resources in and around the Eurasian land mass that China needs to ensure its 2049 vision (National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China 2015).

Next is China’s unilateral and coercive using of its rapidly growing military power over neighboring states in Southeast Asia and South Asia (including Japan and India). China today works to secure territorial and governance rights disputed by neighboring states (O’Rourke 2016). Best known in this regard is China’s forceful efforts to exclusively control disputed land features as well as maritime resources in the South China Sea. China also claims a sovereign right to govern who may transit international waters in the South China Sea (Liu 2018). This latter claim affects all states, which heretofore enjoyed the undisputed right under international law to transit their vessels across international waters there in free and unhindered fashion for all lawful purposes.

Finally, there is Xi Jinping’s vision of a China-centered “community of common destiny” or “community of shared human fate” (命运共同体) that will operate according to an improved set of norms and institutions more in tune with Chinese and other non-western values and priorities (Jin 2013; Xinhuanet 2018).

China’s vigorous efforts to expand Chinese leverage on these parallel and mutually supportive economic, military-strategic, and politico-diplomatic tracks are altering the Indo-Pacific region in ways that now concern the Quad and other countries that are invested one way or another in the maintenance of the “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)

A “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) means that free trade, open market economies, and unhindered navigation in and over international waters for lawful purposes are liberal norms by which states have generally abided. When states dispute questions of sovereign rights and obligations in this Westphalian “rules-based order”, they agree that customary international law, relevant legal conventions, and impartial judicial mechanisms provide the basis for peaceful and non-coercive conflict resolution between states that enjoy equal sovereign status, rights, and privileges under the international rule of law.

This rules-based order has been the unquestioned status quo in the Indo-Pacific region (IPR) ever since China began its reform and opening up era 40 years ago. But today the liberal order needs a name (FOIP) to identify and clarify how it differs from rising China’s great power dream of a China-centered community of common destiny that will govern the IPR by 2049.

This discussion will enumerate key ways in which China’s ambitions challenge the vital interests of a variety of FOIP stakeholders. The aim is to identify contradictions as a prelude to a broader discussion of ways to arrive at a stable modus vivendi. It seems clear today that the Leninist Chinese party-state under Communist Party of China (CPC) rule will never agree to be bound by western liberal norms and institutions. Xi Jinping is today forcefully signaling this message in all areas—economic, strategic, political, and ideological. He is also acting to bring the governance of surrounding regions into harmony with China’s own values, norms, and interests.

The lines seem now to be drawn and if armed conflict is to be avoided the task from now on is to find a formula that will permit both the Chinese Dream agenda and the liberal FOIP regime to coexist side-by-side peacefully without destroying the stability and growing prosperity of the IPR.

The origin of the Indo-Pacific region[1]

The historically separate and distinctive Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions began integrating after India turned outward and launched the Look East initiative in 1991 that aimed to link India up with the “East Asian miracle” occurring next door in the Asia-Pacific region. This led to today’s dynamically developing and integrating Indo-Pacific region (IPR) in which the center of economic dynamism is moving steadily from East Asia through Southeast Asia toward South Asia.

IPR growth and integration is driven by advancing technology, rapid trade and investment growth, and growing logistical linkages that have economically and strategically integrated the Indian Ocean region and the Asia-Pacific region to form the IPR. The World Bank Global Economic Prospects Report 2018 forecast growth through 2020 at about three percent for advanced economies; in contrast the numbers for developing East Asia and South Asia were six percent and seven percent respectively.

The IPR’s growth momentum looks sustainable through 2050. This will fundamentally alter the distribution of wealth and power in the world. The stakes are high and so the attention of all governments is drawn to the direction of IPR order and governance today.

Global free trade norms and open secure sea lanes linking the IPR to externally located advanced economies and energy exporters has facilitated and today sustains this admirable Indo-Pacific growth and integration process. This fact suggests that all IPR states, with the possible exception of China, share a vital stake in maintaining the FOIP.

Today we see ongoing negotiations among IPR countries to negotiate an IPR regional free trade agreement (RTA) consistent with WTO principles called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). These countries include the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and India. But RCEP excludes critically important external contributors to, and stakeholders in, the IPR’s growth and development. Moreover, RCEP does little to ensure continuing liberal access to these critically important stakeholders.

China offers its own vision of continuing regional growth and development—the BRI and the Chinese Dream. The BRI vision excludes today’s advanced market economies. China’s strategy focuses on making the future prosperity of IPR developing countries ever more dependent on China’s own continuing growth and development in a “community of common destiny”.

This situation should be concerning to all IPR stakeholders interested in realizing the best possible future trajectory of IPR growth and development.

Rising China begins to reorganize the IPR

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) inaugurated by Xi Jinping in 2013 seeks to economically integrate China with markets across Eurasia, Africa, Australasia, and the South Pacific Islands using physical transportation and digital telecommunication infrastructure (MERICS 2018). The idea is to gain secure privileged access to markets and resources within the vast BRI geographical footprint. As China matures into a leading technological, industrial, and financial power, BRI will provide a foundation for a China-centric macro-regional division of labor in which China plays the headquarters managerial role and occupies the top levels of regional value chains. The “top-down design” of BRI leads to anything but a free market outcome.

This agenda is implemented today using bilaterally negotiated official agreements between China and developing country BRI partner governments. Though China sells the BRI as development assistance, in reality BRI may be meant to assist the next stage of China’s own development agenda.

On the one hand, BRI seems to be loading up developing country partners with inappropriate “white elephant” infrastructure projects financed by unrepayable official loans that mortgage the futures of these countries. On the other hand, BRI projects are very useful to China because they are designed to link up into a network that serves China’s geostrategic purposes. They provide China with secure access to critically important markets and resources; initiate and subsidize the efforts of Chinese commercial, industrial, and financial enterprises to penetrate and dominate local markets; and ultimately the BRI network will support China’s ambition to govern the BRI mega-region.

So first of all, both developing and advanced country FOIP stakeholders are concerned by accumulating evidence of minimal impact on local development; unfortunate economic and political consequences for BRI partners; and unmasked hidden agendas associated with BRI projects. Today numerous news media, government, and academic studies reveal opaque and possibly corrupt BRI-related dealings; official aid loans that are fully tied to Chinese commercial interests; projects that from the start are unsustainable burdens on BRI partners; and “debt trap diplomacy” that that conveniently gives China lasting coercive influence over BRI partner governments (Kliman and Grace 2018; Ma 2018; Marlow and Li 2018; Pongsudhirak 2018; South China Morning Post 2018).

Another concern is that BRI is undermining and displacing liberal FOIP norms. Liberal economic governance relies on private sector choices freely made in open competitive markets. Where international public finance (foreign aid) is needed to build infrastructure in poor countries, multilateral aid institutions rely on official development assistance (ODA) principles and procedures to ensure that projects in developing countries are appropriate and sustainable. These procedures may be slow and unwieldy, but they are designed as safeguards to developing country taxpayers.

In contrast, BRI relies on secretly negotiated government-to-government financing to construct big, expensive infrastructure projects that fulfill a Chinese geostrategic vision. All too often, these BRI projects are too expensive and inappropriate for local needs. To overcome doubts and induce host country cooperation, China offers huge project loans with few sustainability and governance safeguards. Moreover, the design and construction of BRI projects is done by Chinese state-affiliated enterprises, and related local trade and investment opportunities are tailor made to Chinese needs and interests, leaving BRI partners with few growth benefits, unsustainable debt, and a colonized economy (Hurley, Morris and Portelance 2018).

Next, as individual BRI projects reach completion and link up to form a network of IPR trade, capital, and digital information connectivity under Chinese management and coordination, China gains an ability to channel vital IPR economic flows on a discretionary basis, and use this power to reward compliance and punish defiance. This ability to reward and punish countries, combined with the continuing rise of Chinese economic, political, and strategic power, suggests that the formation of a greater Eurasian mega-region under Chinese suzerainty by 2049 may not be such a far-fetched vision.

Finally, one must note that inevitably, the flag will follow a nation’s trade. The question is whether that nation’s flag threatens others’ security and creates instability. It is said that BRI creates a “string of pearls” of strategically located port facilities that will enable the PLA Navy to extend its operational presence and strategic control across the IPR (Dabas 2017; Drun 2017). In fact, the PLA now has access to completed port developments in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Somalia more in prospect as other port projects reach completion. Moreover, China’s unrelenting unilateral and coercive use of its growing military power to secure disputed territories and governance rights in, for example, the South China Sea, is raising tension, causing others to feel less secure, and spawning strategic rivalry with the US.

The Chinese Dream agenda in the IPR

The Chinese Dream is the trademark slogan that sums up Xi Jinping’s ambition to rectify injustices suffered during China’s “century of humiliation” following the Opium War (1839-42). it also seeks to re-establish China as Asia’s most powerful, wealthy, and respected nation before the centenary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. It features an ideological interpretation of world history, “socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era”, and China’s destiny to once again establish a harmonious hierarchical world order that may explain, though perhaps not excuse, China’s most egregious violations of liberal political and economic norms.

The three main elements of the Chinese Dream agenda that cause the most liberal concern in the IPR are: the Belt and Road Initiative; the drive to acquire and use great power military capabilities; and the construction of China-centered governance norms and institutions that directly challenge the liberal norms and institutions that sustain a FOIP.

Belt and Road Initiative

The geographic footprint of BRI encompasses all of Eurasia and the neighboring regions of the Arctic, Africa, and Oceania. The IPR is just one part of this greater Eurasian mega-region included within the BRI geostrategic footprint. Unlike other parts of greater Eurasia, the IPR today is unsurpassed in economic dynamism and future growth prospects. All states, with the possible exception of China, are deeply invested in maintaining it. So, how will the incorporation of the IPR into the greater Eurasia created and managed by China’s BRI change the existing IPR?

What is BRI?

BRI is a top-down and China-managed plan to design, organize, finance, construct, and own or operate networks of connectivity infrastructure that will carry the flow of economic transactions and integrate economic space in greater Eurasia. To begin this process, China must first sign BRI partnership agreements with countries across greater Eurasian using promises of Chinese aid, trade, and investment benefits. In exchange for enhanced aid, trade, and investment, China gains influence over recipient country trade, investment, and industrial policies that is used to access strategically important resources and markets, and to build and integrate the BRI network.

Under the guidance of top CPC leaders in the BRI leading small group, China’s National Development and Reform Commission under the State Council takes the lead in overall BRI planning and coordination (Xinhuanet 2015). Other state research organs (such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Chinese universities), line ministries (such as MOFA and MOFCOM), and state-owned financial institutions (such as the China Development Bank, the Export Import Bank, and the Silk Road Fund) and state-affiliated industrial and commercial enterprises (such as China Merchant Holdings, China State Construction Engineering Corporation, and China Railway Construction Corporation), help to organize, plan, and negotiate BRI project agreements. These official bilateral agreements create the basis for institutional and organizational arrangements necessary for the construction and operation of BRI connectivity infrastructure under Chinese auspices.

“Connectivity infrastructure” refers to the physical plant and equipment needed to provide transportation, financial, and digital information services that permit economic exchange. It also includes the institutional (e.g., official aid, trade, loan, and investment agreements) and organizational arrangements (e.g., the engagement of service providing firms) needed to ensure the construction and reliable operation of these hardware systems.

Economic connectivity infrastructure systems converge at nodes of commercial, financial, and industrial activity such as seaports, airports, special industrial and trade zones, and in major cities—as well as along the maritime and land transportation corridors that connect these nodes. The resulting connectivity network facilitates trade, investment, and travel linkages within a serviced geographic space to create a larger more integrated market.

Thus, BRI not only provides China with direct, secure, and preferential access to the markets, resources, and geographic advantages of greater Eurasia; it also facilitates the penetration of Chinese trade, finance, technology, and infrastructure services into every corner of greater Eurasia to make each country in this mega-region increasingly dependent on China. This dependence will be leveraged to attain China’s leadership in greater Eurasia as well as predominance in the wider world by 2049 if all goes according to plan.

Though the construction of BRI will greatly challenge China’s political capacities and economic resources, China under Xi Jinping appears confident that it will overcome all obstacles to achieve success.

The nature of concern

Leaving aside the question of predatory “debt-trap diplomacy” that puts developing countries into long-term debt servitude to China, a different and longer-term concern is whether BRI is designed to give Beijing monopolistic control over IPR trade, capital, and information flows. If liberally governed alternative means of access to these economic factors cease to be available, the region could fall victim to a predatory system of Chinese-managed BRI connectivity services.

So, the BRI risk is that IPR stakeholders will have to pay unreasonable rates and/or give economic, political, and strategic concessions to China on a continuing basis in order to transact normal business. This kind of China-centered order would be antithetical to FOIP and would injure the sovereign rights and independence of all IPR countries.

Though short term BRI benefits promised to developing countries willing to host BRI projects will continue to induce cooperation, as the threat of monopolistic Chinese control over vital infrastructure connectivity services in the IPR becomes more evident, China may find that such cooperation will be harder to come by, and that states inside and outside the IPR may join together to help maintain the FOIP as insurance against capture and exploitation by predatory designs.

China’s growing military power and assertiveness

In the absence of any hostile neighbor threatening China’s security, one might ask why China has been working so hard to modernize and expand its military capabilities. The answer is that China aspires to the great power status that comes with great military power. Moreover, China will want to ensure the security of BRI and related interests that China will develop in greater Eurasia.

This ambition would not be of great concern to liberal stakeholders if China accepted the FOIP order. The problem, however, is that China is clearly unhappy with core aspects of the FOIP order and seeks to revise it. At the same time, it is quickly growing new capabilities across the spectrum of battlespace to transform the FOIP into a strategic space governable by China. Wielding such coercive leverage gives China a better ability to control FOIP economic and discursive space and impose new norms and institutions that may privilege its own interests over the sovereign rights and vital interests of other FOIP residents and external stakeholders.

The ambition to dominate strategic space in order to impose a revisionist governance agenda may be seen in the way that China has used its superior military and civilian coercive capabilities to occupy disputed land features in the Spratly Islands and seize control of other coastal states’ EEZ claims in the South China Sea. This Chinese behavior taken specifically against the Philippines has been found to lack any legal basis by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 (Permanent Court of Arbitration 2016).

Furthermore, China has deployed missiles, radars, jet fighters, and strategic bombers on artificial island bases built on seized reefs and shoals in the Spratly Islands inside the EEZs of rival claimants. It appears that this deployment of military force aims to enforce a claim of sovereign Chinese authority over international waters in the South China Sea. This claimed right contradicts and replaces the universally recognized international legal norms and institutional arrangements that have governed the South China Sea until now.

China’s use of its growing military power against Southeast Asian neighbors not only injures their sovereign territorial rights under international law; it also injures the right of all states to free and unhindered navigation across the international waters as provided under international law.

China’s unilateral and coercive use of its expanding military power appears not to be an isolated incident. Similar coercive military actions occurred in the India-Bhutan-Chinese tri-border junction region of Doklam in the spring and summer of 2017 when PLA troops transgressed the Bhutan border and constructed military improvements to threaten India’s ability to defend Arunachal Pradesh against Chinese increasingly assertive military behavior and sovereignty claims. These two cases suggest a new Chinese politico-military practice called forth by the Chinese Dream agenda of expanding China-centered regional governance.

From a liberal perspective, this new Chinese practice advances revanchist territorial claims; subverts the international rules-based order that created the successfully integrating and dynamically developing FOIP; and threatens the lawful rights and vital interests of states both inside and outside of the region.

The China-centered Community of Common Destiny

China aspires to lead a “community of common destiny” (CCD) whose members are closely linked to, and benefit from, BRI linkages to the continuously growing Chinese economy. This vision puts China at the center of regional governance (Yang 2018). But how exactly would China construct and manage institutions of community governance?

Greater Eurasian governance by sub region

China is using BRI to build a decentralized hub-and-spoke governance architecture to manage the BRI macro-region. China has been busy instituting annual China-centered leadership forums using pledges of BRI-related aid, trade, loans, and investments to draw sub-regional country participation. These forums attract BRI partners; provide a convenient way for China to establish regular high-level bilateral and sub regional consultations across greater Eurasia; and provide a venue for China to use its economic leverage to pursue its strategic and political agendas.

For example, in Southeast Asia it has the long-established China-ASEAN annual leadership meeting; in Northern Asia it has the China-Mongolia-Russia trilateral summit; in Central Asia it has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO); in Central and Eastern Europe, China convenes the annual 16 + 1 Leaders Meeting; in South Asia it seeks membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) but India so far has vetoed it; in Africa China uses the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to promote Chinese trade, investment, and BRI with sub-Saharan African countries; the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum brings China together with the Arab League members; in 2018 Xi Jinping proposed convening an annual China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum from 2019.

These forums are not legally chartered organizations; they are instead informally institutionalized annual leadership meetings where China conducts bilateral and multilateral leadership consultations. The promise of money draws individual country leaders to these forums where they seek to build relationships with the Chinese leaders. They also become competitors for generous Chinese loans to build BRI projects of strategic importance to China.

China is thus enabled to cultivate close bilateral relations with individual members using aid, trade, and investment pledges. In the aggregate, these relationships create a governance mechanism that permits China to gather information; strengthen political ties; propose cooperation; reward and punish individual countries; and sway policy discourse and trend of events within each sub-region.

In 2017 China held inaugurated an annual Belt and Road Summit to draw all BRI member leaders together to celebrate China’s initiative, but the meeting is too large, the members are too diverse, and the agenda is too broad and diffuse to be of much use in actually managing the details of BRI policy and implementation across greater Eurasia. This is being done instead at the sub-regional and bilateral levels by the sub-regional forum processes. Centralized coordination of sub regional agendas conducted by Beijing could be the most effective mechanism of governance in the anticipated community of common destiny.

The case of Southeast Asia

We can see this dynamic most clearly in China’s dealings with the ten ASEAN members in Southeast Asia. China regularly convenes 10 + 1 ASEAN-China leadership forums to pledge trade and assistance. Individual members then line up to begin bilateral consultations with China to gain a share. At the same time, China uses the forum to conclude joint declarations and agreements that align ASEAN with China’s BRI, international security, and international governance initiatives.

It is difficult for ASEAN members to pressure China in these forums. For example, China’s sovereignty disputes with ASEAN members in the South China Sea are justiciable under contemporary international legal norms and institutions. Nevertheless, ASEAN members cannot raise these disputes and possible solutions because China has been able to keep it off the agenda of the ASEAN-China forums. Using its ability to reward and punish individual members, as well as the differences that divide ASEAN members, China has successfully prevented ASEAN from formulating a unified position vis-à-vis China on this issue.

China refuses to follow relevant international legal norms and institutions to adjudicate sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea even in maritime jurisdictional disputes where China is legally obligated to permit this under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China has signed and ratified.

For example, the International Court of Justice’s Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) agreed to hear and give an award in the compulsory arbitration case brought in 2013 by the Philippines against China’s 9-dash line sovereignty claim that overlaid the Philippine’s EEZ claim under UNCLOS provisions. The compulsory arbitration procedure was held under provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that both disputants had signed and ratified.

After considering all sides of the dispute, including an informal memorial submitted by China, the PCA found that China’s 9-dash line lacked legal justification; that China’s historical claim was disputable and in any case has been superseded by modern international legal norms to which modern China has agreed; and that China’s unilateral coercive actions to secure its authority (e.g., barring Philippine fishing vessels) and develop (e.g., build artificial islands on shoals and reefs) within its invalid 9-dash line claim violated the Philippine’s EEZ rights as well as various other legally binding UNCLOS principles and rules designed to secure the safety of human and marine life.

China’s new governance norms

China categorically rejected the PCA ruling by insisting that its historical memory of governance in ancient times must now take precedence over UNCLOS provisions and the sovereignty rights and historical memories of disputing states. To enforce its claimed rights and impose new norms of regional behavior, China has deployed far superior military power on the disputed artificial Spratly Islands to coerce rival claimants into compliance with new maritime boundary lines; a reallocation of island and ocean resources; new governance rights; and new norms for dispute settlement created by China to favor China’s interests.

The only peaceful recourse that China gives a disputing state is to enter into a bilateral diplomatic negotiation with China to achieve a political rather than legal settlement. China insists on bilateralism even though the Spratly Islands disputes involve two or more other Southeast Asian countries and China claiming same land feature or marine resources. The insistence on bilateral political negotiation as a dispute settlement mechanism isolates rival claimants; maximizes China’s negotiating advantage against each rival; creates an opaque settlement mechanism; and avoids any obligation to respect other state’s rights under international law or the authority of international courts. It all looks like an effort to establish “might-makes-right” as a Chinese governance norm.

Thus, liberal states invested in maintaining a FOIP are justifiably concerned by the approach to regional governance mechanism put forth by China in Southeast Asia because it subverts fundamental liberal principles that underwrite the FOIP.


This short discussion has listed specific concerns regarding the BRI; the new practice of Chinese military power; and the type of regional governance modeled by the newly inaugurated system of China-centered sub-regional forums. This new practice of Chinese power is raising serious concerns in the US and in other liberal states such as Japan; India; Australia; France; the UK; and Germany. All of these states have deep commitments to liberal norms. They, along with all IPR developing countries, have an abiding interest in maintaining a FOIP that will only become stronger as efforts to undermine the FOIP become more apparent.

China’s most ambitious vision for 2049 may be antithetical to that of FOIP stakeholders, but this does not mean that, if encountering objections and resistance, China will not settle for something less. This could be compatible with the continued existence of a FOIP system of connectivity. Neither China nor leading liberal FOIP stakeholders can afford to resort war to settle their differences. A way must be found for both systems of economic exchange to coexist peacefully (and no doubt competitively) side-by-side in a pluralistic IPR. Is it not time to focus finding a mutually acceptable outcome before accumulating frictions and mistrust prevent rational discussion and lead to a worst-case scenario?


[1] The IPR in this discussion includes the contiguous rim lands around the Indian and Pacific Oceans as well as the insular lands within these contiguous ocean regions.[Return to Text]


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