Geographies in Depth

China’s Belt and Road Initiative turns 10. Here’s what to know

A visitor attends the "Belt and Road" summit in Hong Kong, China September 14, 2023. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Total Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments have already surpassed $1 trillion. Image: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Spencer Feingold
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • China officially announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013.
  • The massive infrastructure project aims to connect multiple continents across land and sea.
  • So far, over 200 BRI cooperation agreements have been signed with more than 150 countries and 30 international organizations.

This fall marks ten years since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative, the vast infrastructure project that China devised to boost trade and connectivity across Asia, Europe and Africa.

Over the years, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—also known as the One Belt and One Road Initiative or the New Silk Road—has included numerous physical development and financial investment projects ranging from the construction of railways to satellite networks. The endeavour remains one of the largest infrastructure plans ever initiated by a single country.

“Belt and Road international cooperation has gotten off the ground, grown rapidly and produced fruitful outcomes,” Xi said in October during a ceremony marking the BRI’s tenth anniversary. “Covering the land, the ocean, the sky and the internet, this network has boosted the flow of goods, capital, technologies and human resources among countries involved.”

Signage is seen outside the China National Convention Center during the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China October 17, 2023. REUTERS/Edgar Su
A sign during the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in October 2023. Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

President Xi unveiled the BRI in a series of speeches made in Kazakhstan and Indonesia in September 2013. The initiative is rooted in China’s long history of facilitating trade and commerce across the ancient Silk Road routes that connected Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

The BRI was established with two primary components: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The Economic Belt part of the strategy aims to build and expand land routes for people and commerce across Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Asia. Meanwhile, the Maritime Road component consists of plans for expanded sea routes across East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The BRI is based on five priorities: policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bond. In 2017, the Communist Party of China officially incorporated the advancement of the BRI into its constitution.

‘A global network of connectivity’

BRI projects and investments have been implemented in numerous countries across Asia, Africa, Europe and even South America. As of recent months, over 200 BRI cooperation agreements have been signed with more than 150 countries and 30 international organizations.

The projects include constructing or upgrading roads, ports, railways, pipelines and other trade-related infrastructure. Internet connectivity and digital advancement programmes have been pursued, too. In Mozambique, for instance, a BRI-funded project brought satellite television to 1,000 villages.

“Over these 10 years, we have endeavoured to build a global network of connectivity consisting of economic corridors, international transportation routes and information highways,” Xi added in his speech in October.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks at the inauguration of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor port in Gwadar, Pakistan November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Caren Firouz
Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks at the CPEC inauguration in November 2016. Image: REUTERS/Caren Firouz

One of the largest and most notable BRI projects to date is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Launched in 2015, the CPEC is a trade corridor that connects Pakistan's Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea with Kashgar, a city in China's western Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The project has included the construction of airports, railways, highways and pipelines, among other types of trade and energy infrastructure. Total Chinese investments in the project have topped $60 billion.

Another recently completed BRI project is a high-speed railway connecting the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Bandung. The 350-km-per-hour train opened to passengers in October. It is the first high-speed train in Southeast Asia and cut the previously three-and-a-half-hour trip to just 45 minutes.

“Connectivity is not only a major new trend of our time, but also a key driver of future economic growth,” stated a 2021 World Economic Forum report analysing the BRI’s impact on cities.

The Forum’s Belt and Road Cities’ Connectivity Index was developed to help BRI cities evaluate their current infrastructure and adopt targeted goals to create a network of connected urban areas. The report—which studied 22 BRI cities across Europe, Asia and Africa—offers five key policy recommendations: take advantage of existing strengths; use geographical proximity and cultural similarities to increase connectivity; build digital connections; strengthen city-to-city exchanges; and share best practices.

The BRI has faced criticism over the years. Critics warn that many BRI projects lack transparency and that Chinese investments can be a “debt trap,” especially for developing countries. China maintains, however, that its lending is not predatory.

Greening the BRI

Over the past decade, the BRI has also faced criticism over environmental and sustainability concerns. Yet, various initiatives and efforts have been advanced in recent years to create a greener BRI.

In 2018, for instance, the Green Finance Committee of China Society for Finance and Banking and the City of London’s Green Finance Initiative published the Green Investment Principles (GIP) for the BRI. The World Economic Forum and several other international organizations contributed to drafting the principles.

The GIP, which has been signed by dozens of stakeholders in several countries, urged lenders, investors and planners to ensure that BRI projects adhere to sustainability requirements. The principles called for the assessment and disclosure of climate risk mitigation strategies, the creation of green investment targets and commitments to phase out carbon-intensive investment.

Workers stand beside an Electric Multiple Unit high-speed train for a rail link project part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, at Tegalluar train depot in Bandung, West Java province, Indonesia, October 13, 2022. REUTERS/Yuddy Cahya Budiman
The BRI-funded high-speed train in Bandung, Indonesia, in October 2022. Image: REUTERS/Yuddy Cahya Budiman

Moreover, in 2022, the World Economic Forum published a report on creating a more sustainable BRI. The report, Advancing the Green Development of the Belt and Road Initiative: Harnessing Finance and Technology to Scale Up Low-Carbon Infrastructure, details the technologies needed to green the BRI as well as the financial instruments and policy environment that can help facilitate the transition. For instance, the report calls for financial institutions to reduce their exposure to carbon-intensive sectors and increase the use of sustainable finance mechanisms like green and blue bonds.

“As the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and EVs, China is well placed to help deliver low-carbon technologies to [emerging and developing economies] as part of its Belt and Road Initiative,” the report states.

Several GIP signatories have already made progress, the Forum’s report notes. In 2021, for example, the Bank of China announced that it would stop providing financing for new coal-mining and coal-fired power projects overseas. Meanwhile, Ping An, a major Chinese conglomerate, announced a target date of 2035 for divesting unlisted investments in thermal coal mining and unabated coal power projects.

Changes to Chinese government policy have helped green the BRI in recent years, too. In 2020, the government-led BRI Green Development Coalition (BRIGC) published guidance on the importance of implementing best practices around environmental risk management. The BRIGC also created a colour classification system that evaluated and rated BRI projects based on their environmental impact.

$1 trillion and counting

Total BRI spending has already surpassed $1 trillion—an enormous sum China plans to recoup through various debt repayment plans. Today, BRI lending has made China the world’s largest debt collector.

And while investment levels have fluctuated over the years and some countries have ended their involvement with the BRI, funding has increased in recent months. In the first half of 2023, over 100 BRI agreements were signed, valuing a total of $43 billion—a roughly 20% increase from the first half of 2022.

“Our achievements in the past decade are truly remarkable,” Xi concluded in this October speech. “Belt and Road cooperation was proposed by China, but its benefits and opportunities are for the world to share.”

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