This article discusses China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI), the divergent views of it, and the implications they have for China and for the world. Following a brief review of its historical background and the initial performance in the past five years, including especially the financing aspect, the article focuses on the risk factor. It argues that, as both a rising power and a novel player in the international investment arena, China faces daunting challenges ahead, the nature of which is more geopolitics than economics in a hitherto unipolar global system still dominated by the U.S. Increasingly seeing BRI as part of a “revisionist” (rather than integrationist) threat of “illiberalism” against the liberal post-WWII international architecture, the U.S. has made an about-face or “re-set” from its previous policy of engagement with China to a looming strategy of competition+containment (where operationally feasible). Theoretically, it reflects a return from liberalism to a particular strand of realism -- offensive (rather than defensive) realism to be specific -- as evidenced in part by Trump administration’s “America First” policy. Trapped in Thucydides’s dilemma with the danger of self-fulfilling prophecy, unless China and the U.S. can find a new modus vivendi to accommodate each other in the years to come, the potential for a smashup is high. But for the purpose of the article, to predict is to prevent; and hopefully rationalism will prevail with the benefit of history and theoretical hindsight, if not foresight.
The rest of the article has four parts. Part I puts BRI on the broader canvas of history.
Part II outlines the contour of BRI and its initial performance. Part III examines the risk factor, especially with a focus on the looming strategy of the U.S. with respect to the rise of China on the global scene. The final part, Part IV, provides the theoretical lenses – offensive realism in particular -- through which one can better understand the nature of the current global system, the risk or challenge associated with systemic power transition, and in this large context, why BRI has been viewed differently -- with implications that go far beyond mere economics.
To save time, for those who are already familiar with BRI per se, but are interested in the risk factor, including geopolitics, they may want to skip parts I and II, and go straight to parts III and IV.