Xi Jinping became the “paramount” Communist Chinese leader in 2012-2013, during which time he became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission – three jobs filled by one man (the essence of a Communist dictatorship, in theory and practice being checked only by the Central Committee of the CCP). Xi was groomed to be paramount leader through his career in a succession of leadership posts, being publicly designated as the heir-apparent to Hu Jintao in 2008.
Xi’s ascension to supreme power has resulted in a number of ChiCom global initiatives. Perhaps the most important of these is the Belt and Road Initiative, also called the One Belt One Road initiative, which was announced in June 2013. BRI initially consisted of two major components: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Other initiatives have been added in recent years, including the Digital Silk Road and the Arctic Silk Road. This article discusses the overall BRI and the Silk Road Economic Belt Component. The other parts will be covered in subsequent articles.
The overarching (grandiose?) BRI goal is to develop a global infrastructure controlled by Communist China. The infrastructure elements are largely focused on the development of transportation assets that can later be exploited by Beijing to transport the resources and raw materials needed to fuel Chinese manufacturing concerns, as well as support the exportation of finished Chinese goods to overseas markets around the world, including roads, ports, railroads, bridges, etc. BRI investments also include renewable energy projects, communications infrastructures, and cultural exchanges. This 2017 article from The New York Times actually had it right:
…China marches on with its unabashedly ambitious global-expansion program known as One Belt, One Road. The branding is awkward: “Belt” refers to the land-bound trading route through Central Asia and Europe, while “Road,” confusingly, stands for the maritime route stretching from Southeast Asia across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Still, the intentions are clear: With a lending and acquisitions blitz extending to 68 countries (and counting), OBOR seeks to create the ports, roads and rail and telecommunications links for a modern-day Silk Road — with all paths leading to China.
This is China’s long game. It’s not about immediate profits; infrastructure projects are a bad way to make money. So why is President Xi Jinping fast-tracking OBOR projects amid an economic slowdown at home and a crackdown on other overseas acquisitions? Economics is a big part: China wants to secure access to key resources, export its idle industrial capacity, even tilt the world order in its favor. But there is also a far greater cultural ambition. For centuries, Western liberalism has ruled the world. The Chinese believe their time has come. “China sees itself as a great civilization that needs to regain its status as leader of the world,” says Kadira Pethiyagoda, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Doha Center.
That last observation is the key to the BRI, as Xi Jinping envisions Communist China as the world’s economic superpower, with his personal prestige tightly intertwined with the success of this nearly $1 trillion planned investment in 138 countries around the world (and counting!). The Green Belt and Road Initiative Center reported in January that “Chinese investments in the 138 countries of the Belt and Road Initiative show that overall investments in the BRI in 2020 were about US$47 billion.” There are only 195 countries in the world. The ChiCom mercantilist tentacles have reached far and wide.
The International Institute for Asian Studies maintains a website that discusses “Silk Road Histories.” While propaganda, the videos and podcasts presented there provide some useful background information on the BRI, including its historical antecedents dating back to 2500 BCE. The ancient Silk Road existed for about 1400 years:
The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting China and the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. Established when the Han Dynasty in China officially opened trade with the West in 130 B.C., the Silk Road routes remained in use until 1453 A.D., when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with China and closed them.
The Silk Road routes included a large network of strategically located trading posts, markets and thoroughfares designed to streamline the transport, exchange, distribution and storage of goods.
Venetian explorer Marco Polo famously used the Silk Road to travel from Italy to China, which was then under the control of the Mongolian Empire, where they arrived in 1275.
As reported by the state-run People’s Daily, “The ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ concept [was first introduced] introduced by Xi during his visit to Kazakhstan” in September 2013. The new Belt is a modern version of the ancient Silk Road that is intended to 1) interlink Central Asia in a common economic market dominated by Beijing, and 2) expand the authoritarian Chinese mercantilist system to Europe in order to replace the existing the Western international rules-based order. The below figure is a graphical depiction of the Silk Road Economic Belt:
What that Silk Road Histories website does not do is examine the primary downside of the BRI – the debt trap. BRI-related infrastructure investments – in reality, loans from ChiCom-controlled state banks and not grants – come with strings attached. Those loans must be paid back. Frequently, the provisions of those loans provide for Communist China to gain control of a country’s BRI-funded infrastructure and/or natural resources if/when loans are defaulted, generally through long-term leases of those assets. A cynical person might conclude that gaining control of those assets through exploitation of debt traps may be the real albeit unspoken purpose of the BRI!
An excellent discussion of Chinese “debt trap diplomacy” from the Gatestone Institute can be found here. These two excellent videos describe the significant concerns associated with debt traps:
Despite the reality of debt trap diplomacy, there are reliably pro-Chinese US media who defend ChiCom overseas investments. The Atlantic has been a home for so-called “China hands” for over a generation, providing editorial commentary aimed at influencing primarily Democrat policy makers (they endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016). China hands are acolytes of Henry Kissinger who believe like he does that giving Beijing access to international organizations and democratic methods will somehow correct Communist China’s rogue behavior through democratization over time. Ask residents of the US Rust Belt how those Kissinger-backed pro-China trade policies have worked out for them as they watched their manufacturing and production facilities transferred lock, stock, and barrel to China over the last 30+ years.
Over the last four years, The Atlantic has been reliably anti-Trump partly because President Trump’s China policy was a complete reversal of the Kissinger school’s failed policies. His implementation of tariffs and recognition of Beijing’s unchanged predator mercantilism resulted in real US-China trade negotiations aimed at curtailing China’s bad habits. So it is no surprise that a February 2021 article in The Atlantic was a two-fer for the China hands: it bashed Trump’s China policy while at the same time attempted to debunk the reality of Chinese debt traps. The author apparently overlooked the recent debt trap travails of tiny Montenegro, as described in this article. The Atlantic’s article is of a piece with similar continuing commentary from Washington thinktanks like Johns Hopkins, Brookings Institution, Atlantic Council, Center for American Progress, EastWest Institute, Carter Center, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that are linked to and have received funding from Communist China: full of praise for the BRI and critical of any US efforts to expose ChiCom strategic goals enabled by the initiative. The ChiComs get the favorable propaganda for which they pay!
As a final comment about the BRI, it is important to remember that BRI investments are funded at least partially by the huge annual trade surplus that China has with the US. Americans’ purchases of Chinese-made products fund the ChiComs’ expansionist dreams.
This ends Part III of the China series. Further discussion of the China hands and ChiCom corruption of US institutions will be saved for future parts of this series. The next part will cover the other elements of the BRI: the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the Digital Silk Road, and the Arctic Silk Road.
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