One of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy programs is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a web of infrastructure development plans designed to increase Eurasian economic integration. Chinese official rhetoric on the BRI focuses on its economic promise and progress, often in altruistic terms: all countries have been invited to board this “express train” to wealth and prosperity.1 Missing from the rhetoric is much discussion of the initiative’s security dimensions and implications. Chinese officials avoid describing the strategic benefits they think the BRI could produce, while also gliding over major security risks and concerns. Yet at the unofficial level, China’s security community has paid close attention to these issues, probing in great depth the gains Beijing can expect, the challenges it will face, and the new demands it will have to satisfy.
Understanding those Chinese assessments is helpful as the United States considers how, when, and in what capacity to engage the BRI.2 Many foreign observers have speculated about the geopolitical ambitions behind the initiative, often describing it as a Chinese “Marshall Plan” designed to amass influence in Eurasia.3 Evidence from Chinese sources helps validate, but in some ways qualify, those views. At the same time, there could be room for mutually beneficial security cooperation on Eurasian security affairs, insofar as both China and the United States seek to advance stability in Central Asia and other affected regions, and oppose common challenges, such as terrorism and piracy. Chinese writings help illuminate how those risks might impact BRI, and where opportunities for cooperation might arise.
This study finds that Chinese security perspectives on the BRI are fundamentally ambivalent. On one hand, the thinking goes, economic development and connectivity will help stabilize China’s border regions, secure its energy supplies, and allow China to extend its strategic influence. On the other hand, China will face various challenges, ranging from terrorism to strategic competition from the United States, Japan, and India. Meeting these challenges requires careful diplomatic coordination and messaging, a stronger ability to anticipate and assess risk, and new capabilities to protect trade routes and Chinese citizens abroad. For the United States, evidence from Chinese sources supports the need for caution about Beijing’s intentions, but also highlights areas of potential cooperation to the extent that both countries share complementary regional agendas.ChinaPerspectives-12
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