At the Dawn of Belt and Road: China in the Developing World



Andrew Scobell, Bonny Lin, Howard J. Shatz, Michael Johnson, Larry Hanauer, Michael S. Chase, Astrid Stuth Cevallos, Ivan W. Rasmussen, Arthur Chan, Aaron Strong, Eric Warner, Logan Ma | RAND Corporation


The Developing World has never been more important to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) than it is today. China views its ties to developing countries as critical for securing natural resources, developing export markets, expanding its geostrategic influence, and gaining advantages in its global competition with the United States. During the Cold War, the Developing World was a symbolic cause that China used to differentiate itself from the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and trumpet mainly rhetorical support for the poorer countries of the globe. In the post-Cold War era, since the 1990s, the Developing World has become a real arena for competition with the United States and the site of significant Chinese political, economic, and military interests. This report evaluates China’s strategy toward and involvement in the Developing World and assesses its engagement on a regional basis: Southeast Asia, Oceania, Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. This regional analysis is complemented by a focus on relations with five particular countries— Russia, Pakistan, Iran, South Africa, and Venezuela—with which China has developed deeper partnerships because of their significance to their particular neighborhoods and to China’s interests.

China’s Approach to the Developing World, 1949 to Present

The PRC has long seen itself as a leader of the Developing World. In the early years of the People’s Republic, founder and first leader Mao Zedong presented China as a champion for the Developing World and provided China’s partners—particularly revolutionary governments and anti-colonial liberation movements—with both military and development assistance. The PRC identified itself as a developing country offering vocal and substantive support to the Developing World. In the late 1970s, following Mao’s death, China focused its “reform and opening” policy on developed economies that could help the PRC advance economically and technologically; nevertheless, China simultaneously sought to gain access and influence in developing countries through military aid, arms sales, and rewards for switching diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China on Taiwan to the PRC. Then, in the early 1990s, China invigorated and broadened its outreach to the Developing World. China’s fast-growing economy required new sources of raw materials for Chinese factories and new export markets for Chinese-made products.

Since 2013, under President Xi Jinping, China has embarked upon an ambitious initiative to advance China’s engagement with the Developing World. Xi has promoted an extremely ambitious effort to build a vast web of infrastructure—roads, railways, ports, canals, and pipelines—intended to link China to its neighborhood and the wider world. Originally labeled One Belt, One Road and as of 2017 known as the Belt and Road Initiative, it includes an overland “Silk Road Economic Belt” and an over-water “Maritime Silk Road.” The former consists of a series of proposed networks linking Central Asia to South Asia, the Middle East, and onward to Africa and Europe; the latter envisions shipping routes through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean toward South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. With Belt and Road taking shape, we evaluate China’s activities in the Developing World through the dawn of Belt and Road to note the trajectory of relations and where they are likely to head.

China’s Rings of Insecurity and Drivers of Engagement

China’s conceptualization of the Developing World is driven by Beijing’s insecurity about stability at home and around China’s periphery and results in special attention to its own neighborhood. Indeed, China sees its security environment in terms of four concentric circles (Figure S.1). The first and innermost ring encompasses China itself (including Taiwan, which it claims). China’s second ring contains the territory and bodies of water directly adjacent to China’s own land and maritime borders, including portions of Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia. Chinese leaders believe that peace on China’s periphery is essential to domestic harmony, and this leads China to seek extensive influence in these regions and limit influence by outside powers. The third ring includes China’s entire Asia-Pacific (including portions of Southeast Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, and all of Oceania), while the fourth ring includes everything beyond Asia—the rest of the globe: the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Four drivers propel China’s desire and need for more engagement with the Developing World. First, China seeks to sustain its domestic economic growth and sees the Developing World as offering significant economic potential. Second, China wishes to work with developing countries to increase its global influence. Third, with expanding international investments and growing numbers of PRC citizens living, working, and traveling abroad overseas, Beijing has concluded it must work to ensure the safety of these overseas interests. Finally, China seeks to increase its engagement and activism in open, accessible, and underdeveloped regions around the world to compensate for the less welcoming, constricted, and more developed regions—Northeast Asia, North America, and Europe—which tend to be dominated by the United States and its allies.


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