Do China’s Alternatives to the Belt and Road Program Compete or Complement each other?

Promoting various economic corridors as “alternatives” to the BRI misses the mark, for three reasons.

Since President Xi Jinping’s announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, China has invested over $1 trillion in thousands of projects around the world. This has addressed some of the projected infrastructure investment gap in the Global South; however, it has also sparked significant geopolitical and geoeconomic competition between China and the U.S., as well as its partners. As a result, many of these actors have resorted to promoting their own economic corridors to “compete” with the BRI in the hopes of mitigating what they perceive as growing Chinese influence.

This approach misses the mark on three accounts. The first is that the formulation and implementation of the BRI has been, and continues to be, fragmented due to domestic and international stakeholders, thus making it difficult for Beijing to unilaterally extract geopolitical and geoeconomic influence. The second is that some of the corridors meant to compete with the BRI predate it and have facilitated its emergence. The third is that these corridors may be complementary rather than outright competitors.

Conventional accounts frame the BRI as a Chinese grand strategy that is reshaping the international system to its favor. Implicit in that argument is that China can generate geopolitical and geoeconomic influence through the BRI due to its role in Chinese lending and investment.

However, the origins and evolution of the BRI indicate that it is fundamentally fragmented. The BRI originated from provincial-level initiatives dating back to the 1990s. This domestic dynamic continues because provincial officials remain key players in shaping the way in which BRI projects are formulated and implemented. Even state-owned enterprises play a vital role in this process. Internationally, participant countries are also crucial in determining which BRI projects are selected and implemented in their countries. Consequently, while Chinese officials may desire to extract geopolitical and geoeconomic benefits from the BRI, evidence suggests that these two factors limit their capacity to do so effectively.

Despite these limitations, the United States and its partners have moved forward with announcing competing initiatives. Ironically, some of these initiatives predate the BRI, and have played a role in facilitating its development. This is the case with the East-West Economic Corridor and the Southern Economic Corridor promoted by Japan in Southeast Asia.

Both corridors have been incorporated into Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific strategy. However, they originated in 1998 as part of the U.S.-Japan-led Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Economic Cooperation Program, which has had Chinese provincial participation since its inception in 1992. The groundwork of what makes up the BRI’s Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor began with Yunnan’s and Guangxi’s provincial initiatives, and have been enhanced by GMS investment since the 1990s.

While this case is not illustrative of all infrastructure initiatives, it does expose an inherent tension in the discourse: that these “competing” corridors may in fact be complementary. This is especially true from the perspective of the participant countries. After all, if a power plant is built through Chinese capital by Chinese firms, and an industrial park is built with Japanese capital by Japanese firms, the net effect is that these projects have the potential to address the participant country’s energy and industrial capacity.

There is also complementarity from the proponent’s perspective. Using the example above, a Japanese-funded and built industrial park naturally benefits from access to reliable energy supplies regardless of whether the United States or China funds and builds it. This is evident from India’s proposed East Coast Economic Corridor, which is likely to benefit directly and indirectly from established BRI and GMS corridors. Furthermore, the reality is that projects along the BRI and “competing” corridors are funded through Chinese and external lenders, and are often operated through multinational joint ventures, thus complicating simplistic competitive framings.

The implications of these three points are clear. First, the fragmentation of the BRI limits the ability of Chinese officials to unilaterally extract geopolitical and economic benefits and allows for greater agency on the part of participant countries. This indicates that the concerns expressed by the United States and its partners can be partially managed through greater engagement with the BRI and its participant countries.

Second, there may be more complementarity than often assumed between the BRI and the various infrastructure initiatives proposed by the U.S. and its partners. This means that greater attention should be paid to how these initiatives can leverage the positive outcomes of a given proposal to the benefit of the proponent and host country, as well as how to mitigate some of the negative outcomes.

A purely competitive framing of economic initiatives is unlikely to be salient, especially given the growing gap in infrastructure investment in the Global South.

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