In recent years, the People’s Republic of China has grown from a regional power with extreme poverty and little influence to a powerful player on the global stage. From manufacturing to infrastructure development, China has increased its relevance dramatically since the 1970s, opening up diplomatically to the United States under President Richard Nixon in 1979. Chinese naval presence in the South China Sea and financial support for underdeveloped and authoritarian regimes have both expanded the Middle Kingdom’s influence abroad and garnered criticism from human rights advocates and Western media. China’s power is best seen when observing its latest global economic and commercial project: the Belt and Road Initiative.
Named after the historic Silk Road (which was a system of trade routes linking Europe, the Middle East, India and China together, fostering trade for various goods across the Eurasian landmass), the Belt and Road Initiative is one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s most ambitious economic and foreign policies. Its goal is to empower and ensure Beijing’s economic and political prominence through an enormous system of infrastructure building and development in both neighboring countries surrounding China as well as strategic allies across the globe.
On land, Beijing plans to connect the country’s underdeveloped hinterland rust belt to Europe through Central Asia, dubbed the “Silk Road Economic Belt”. By sea, Xi Jinping aims to create a “21st century Maritime Silk Road”, connecting many of China’s southern and coastal provinces to its neighboring Southeast Asian nations through construction of ports and railways.
Beijing plans to spend as much as three trillion dollars on infrastructure development in as many as 60 countries, building oil pipelines across Myanmar, connecting cargo railways from Beijing to London, creating railways from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, and numerous other projects all over Europe, Asia, and Africa
In total, Beijing plans to spend as much as three trillion dollars on infrastructure development in as many as 60 countries, building oil pipelines across Myanmar, connecting cargo railways from Beijing to London, creating railways from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, and numerous other projects all over Europe, Asia, and Africa.
The B&R Initiative is largely interpreted as a geostrategic move meant to propel China’s diplomatic importance on the world stage in order to compete with U.S. hegemony in Asia; this is most clear when observing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, arguably one of the flagship projects of the Initiative. The proposed corridor is expected to link together the western Chinese city of Kashgar to the Pakistani port city of Gwadar, giving China access to the Persian Gulf through high-speed cargo railways, and allowing goods to circumvent the Strait of Malacca (an area claimed entirely by American allies who are particularly distrustful of Beijing) to reach China. In addition, apart from serving as a major commercial port, Gwadar has a deep enough harbor to sustain Chinese naval vessels, particularly submarines and aircraft carriers - thus expanding Beijing’s military presence abroad and challenging U.S. naval supremacy in the Far East.
However, the B&R Initiative is simply one of China’s many tools in expanding what some analysts consider to be Beijing’s neo-colonial expansion into the developing world. Take for example the continent of Africa: as their largest trading partner, China relies on African markets for a steady flow of resources and raw materials such as oil, iron ore, and timber to sustain manufacturing. In exchange for broad, open access to Africa’s vast mineral wealth (as well as permission to construct overseas military installments such as their most notable one in Djibouti), China exports inexpensive manufactured goods back to its trading partners, builds infrastructure, and loans out billions of dollars to partnered countries.
Though advocates argue these policies spur development, opponents point out the obvious exploitation of the African people to the benefit of China through gross trade imbalances. It is also worth noting that, although Beijing is paying the tab for all these infrastructure projects, they aren’t actually investments in human capital; China is building roads, railways, and mines, but isn’t investing in hospitals, schools, or any other facilities meant to physically benefit the economies of the countries involved in the long term, or improve the lives of the people living in them.
Transporting Chinese workers to build Africa’s internal infrastructure prevents domestic workers from getting jobs and experience in the fields required to construct them in the first place, making Africa even more reliant on China for development. The construction of these projects serve only to extract the natural resources of developing nations across Africa, create a growing international reliance on trade with China, and sterilize any future competition to Chinese manufacturing in the developing world.
Via projects like the B&R Initiative and other trade policies in developing countries, the People’s Republic of China is expanding its diplomatic and economic influence around the world. Reflecting the American Marshall Plan of the 20th century, Xi Jinping aims to replicate the economic boom the U.S. experienced after the Second World War.
Despite public outcry over their open support for authoritarian regimes, Beijing is increasingly challenging American hegemony one region at a time, and circumventing U.S.-led efforts to exclude China from trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership by strategically creating and enlarging their own spheres of influence.
Xi Jinping's projects in Eurasia and Africa are only the most recent in a series of tools China is using to overtake the United States as the world’s chief global superpower, as President Donald Trump’s inward-looking, protectionist foreign policy opens a door for China's ascendancy.
Jack Gil is a high school senior at the International School of Los Angeles. He is the Chief Editor of his school newspaper, The LILA Gazette, as well as an Editor for What's Up, Glendale?, the official newspaper for the Glendale Coalition for Better Government.