China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, is a massive international infrastructure program involving nearly 140 countries with over an estimated $1 trillion in projects related to energy, transportation, digital networks, and trade.
Chinese leaders frame the BRI as “win-win” cooperation focused solely on development and connectivity. Beijing has gone to great lengths to minimize BRI’s links to the People’s Liberation Army and to downplay the initiative’s geostrategic overtones. Nevertheless, many governments have become worried about ulterior motives behind BRI projects, many of which have dual-use commercial-military capabilities and are increasingly connected to Chinese digital technologies and networks and satellite systems.
The Asia Society Policy Institute’s – Weaponizing the Belt and Road Initiative – examines key BRI projects in the Indo-Pacific and explores relevant Chinese doctrine, the involvement of the People’s Liberation Army with BRI, and assesses the potential military and geostrategic advantages to China from BRI ports and other projects.
This project is led by ASPI Vice President for International Security and Diplomacy Daniel Russel, with support from ASPI Senior Program Officer Blake Berger. The project and the report benefitted from advisement from experts and officials in Singapore, Australia, Japan, Vietnam, China, and the United States as well as to the expert advisory group whose distinguished members generously shared their time and wisdom to support this effort.
- A Multi-Purpose Platform: BRI’s belts, corridors, and roads provide Beijing with a versatile vehicle to support its foreign and economic policies and a brand that links multiple streams under one rubric. These include the Silk Road Economic Belt; the Maritime Silk Road; the Digital Silk Road; the BRI Space Information Corridor; and the Health Silk Road.
- Benign, Win-Win Cooperation: Beijing consistently frames the BRI purely as a win-win economic and development endeavor as part of an effort to promote China’s image as a responsible and benevolent power.
- Civil-Military Fusion: Chinese laws mandate that even overseas infrastructure be designed to meet military standards. These laws authorize the military to commandeer ships, facilities, and other assets of Chinese-owned companies. China’s push for civil-military integration builds-in dual-use commercial and military functionality in BRI infrastructure and associated technologies.
- “First Civilian, Later Military”: Beijing’s approach seeks to lay the groundwork for military utilization without raising red flags. Many BRI ports are built along a “port-parks-city” development model that integrates the port with industrial parks and support industries like shipbuilding and resupply services that enhance the port’s capacity to support Chinese vessels, including navy ships. The presence of Chinese state-owned and private enterprises, often with operational control of port management, augment the potential military utility of the port.
- Extraterrestrial BRI: Through the Digital Silk Road and the BRI Space Information Corridor, Beijing is providing access to its Beidou Satellite network, constructing digital networks, and providing surveillance, communications, “Smart Cities,” and other technologies. These Chinese technologies boost Beijing’s intelligence and surveillance capabilities, while also feeding the collection of “big data” that is useful to military planners.
- “Strategic Strongpoints”: China is not building overseas naval bases but instead is developing ports with dual-use functionality from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean and on to the Middle East. These ports are “Strategic Strongpoints” in close proximity to maritime chokepoints and critical sea lanes. They are designed to support the Chinese military’s logistics network and improve its ability to operate further from home.
- Platforms for Leverage: These Chinese “Strategic Strongpoints” are integrated platforms for leveraging and projecting power in support of a wide range of strategic objectives. Strong political, trade, financial, and technological ties generate influence over host country governments. Beijing has used loans, aid, trade, disaster relief, military and high-level diplomacy, arm sales, and less respectable means to gain a strong foothold in the Indo-Pacific.
- Facilitating a Favorable Environment: The levers of influence that accrue from the BRI network enables Beijing to exercise persuasion, or coercion, in order to operate in a more compliant and advantageous environment. This dovetails with China’s systematic push to expand its influence in multilateral rule-setting institutions and some cases to create new ones. BRI’s many belts and roads seem to lead toward a regional (or even more extensive) ecosystem that structurally favors China’s interests.
- Disadvantaging Competitors: The BRI network allows China to bring goods to market faster and cheaper than competitors. Dual-use “Strategic Strongpoints” can impede U.S. power projection by complicating things like port access and overflight in the region. China’s provision of digital services creates dependencies and its collection of “big data” creates advantages. China’s trade ties, financial leverage, and expanding engagement are having an impact on the security environment by increasing the operational constraints on the U.S. military, particularly in a crisis when third-party countries may be averse to taking actions that China would oppose.
- Sphere of Influence: The trend is toward an increasingly Chinese-dominated political, economic, technological, and strategic ecosystem in the Indo-Pacific. The challenge posed by BRI lies not in enhanced PLA capabilities per se, but in Beijing’s enhanced ability to project its sovereignty, rules, or undue influence based on a unilateral assertion of “core interests.” The exercise of this power challenges the rules-based international order. Should Beijing be successful in leveraging BRI as a hegemonic device, America’s ability to safeguard that order and maintain regional peace and stability would be compromised.
- Not a Foregone Conclusion: While Beijing has made significant strides in strengthening its influence, the emergence of a Sino-centric regional ecosystem is by no means certain. China does not seem to offer a global vision that its neighbors are eager to embrace. And China’s own economic conditions, especially given the fallout of COVID-19, are far more fraught than in previous years. BRI projects rarely prove to be profitable, many have been scrapped or are stalled, and recipient countries are increasingly unable to meet payments on existing debt. Thus, Beijing can hardly be expected to continue to pump massive capital into the initiative, particularly in light of the voices within Chinese society calling for resources to be redirected to domestic priorities.
- Opportunity to Compete: There is still abundant opportunity for the U.S. and likeminded states to compete -- and to out-compete -- China for influence and credibility in the Indo-Pacific. The problem presented by China’s “weaponization” of the BRI is not primarily a military one, and its solution can’t be primarily military either. The U.S. and likeminded partners should work together to provide a credible alternative to the BRI and to what Beijing is offering in other domains.