Fragmented Motives and Politics: The Belt and Road Initiative in China

Beijing, China. Photo by Henry Chen via Unsplash.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in late 2013 has been the most studied Chinese policy in recent years and has been portrayed variously by different observers worldwide, as China’s great-power strategy, global infrastructure initiative or commercial projects. But how can one initiative be shown to have such varied motives? 

In a 2021 journal article published in the Journal of East Asian Studies, Min Ye unpacked the Chinese state and established that a “tri-block” structure consisting of political leadership, bureaucracy and economic arms accounts for the varied motivations and actors in the BRI in China. 

The journal article was published as part of a special issue of the Journal of East Asian Studies, Chinese Capital Goes Global: The Belt and Road Initiative and Beyond,’ which is the result of a 2018 workshop co-organized by the Boston University Global Development Policy Center and the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer Range Future.

Main findings:

  • The article conceptualizes the Chinese state system as an integrated framework that accounts for fragmented actors driving BRI and resulting in contradictory effects, real or misperceived, in China and abroad. The framework has two theoretical underpinnings: 
    • First, the Chinese state is a tri-block structure, consisting of political leadership, national bureaucracy and the government’s economic arms.
    • Second, the BRI is not a uniform plan but a process of multiple steps and stages.
  • In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s significant financial losses presented a challenge for the BRI. Foreign opinion of China reached rock bottom, making recipients less likely to embrace the BRI. However, Ye draws a different conclusion. Firstly, the BRI was motivated by China’s national priorities in diplomacy and economy; as long as those motivations do not fundamentally alter after the pandemic, the BRI is likely to continue. Secondly, implementation of the BRI has expanded vested interests in China, involving key state actors, and those interests are not going away with the pandemic.
  • Furthermore, Ye provided the  “fragmented state” theoretical background and focused on the state system governing China’s major policies. The article also drew a multi-staged policy process rooted in the state system, comprising initiation, implementations and readjustment, and addressed the extent to which fragmentation has continued in the current leadership.

Publications on China’s BRI have been abundant and divided; but the general thinking in the literature has underscored China’s strategic control over its outward state capital. According to Ye, the geopolitical drivers of the BRI have been overblown. Meanwhile, Chinese companies, operating under the fragmented state and state financing, have resulted in financial risks, environmental disruption and the lack of social inclusion in some BRI projects abroad, as many external critics pointed out. Finally, Ye also argues the fragmented structure allows feedback and external information to reach policymakers in Beijing and help them adjust implementation in the globalization of Chinese capital. In all, the globalization of Chinese capital has been expanding rapidly in the last decades and will continue to be a force to reckon with. 

Read the Journal Article