Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative Slowing Down?

Over seven years since China launched its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a widely held view from the outside is that this endeavour has now slowed down. Such an assessment is typically supported by evidence that China’s overseas financing has been in decline even before the COVID-19 pandemic. An influential article published in the Financial Times in December 2020 provides a perfect case in point. Citing data collected by Boston University showing a sharp drop in the overseas lending of China’s two main policy banks in 2019, the article concludes that China is ‘pulling back’ from the world.

This begs the question of what the proper measurement of the BRI’s progress is. To answer this question, it would first require an accurate conceptualisation of what the Initiative is about. Outside China, reports tend to describe the BRI as an infrastructure project and give it a price tag. The same Financial Times article, for instance, refers to the BRI in these terms: ‘China has promised to spend about $1tn on building infrastructure in mainly developing countries around the world—and finance almost all of this through its own financial institutions.’ This reflects a common view of the BRI as a centralised deployment of China’s financial resources exclusively targeting the infrastructure sector. As such, the BRI’s progress is measured by how much funding China is able to dispatch and how many projects are realised …

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Hong Zhang

Hong Zhang is a China Public Policy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Her research interests include China’s political economy, international development cooperation and foreign aid, and the global expansion of Chinese state-owned enterprises.

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