Anjali Akula

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the single largest policy effort by a major country that no one talks about. The BRI is a global development plan made by China in 2013 that the Chinese government describes as “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future”. The Belt and Road Initiative is recreating the vast trade network that spanned the Eurasian continent over 2000 years ago. One could call the BRI the “New Silk Road.”

At the heart of this policy is Development in technology and infrastructure. Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said, “Science, technology and innovation are the core driving force[s] for the BRI…”. Current projects include high speed rails, a safe drinking water center in Sri Lanka, rice agriculture research in Pakistan, solar panel research in Belgium, and artificial intelligence projects around the globe. The BRI has changed the lives of tens of thousands of researchers and workers internationally. In fact, if one browses the Belt and Road News website, you can find articles about every topic — energy, finance, trade, transportation, environment — the list is truly expansive. This initiative has even worked to help find a COVID-19 vaccine. Nothing seems out of scope for a project this massive. This may cause one to ask: why has China decided to undertake so many developmental projects outside the borders of their country?

Map of nations involved with BRI. (Masood)

Although China is using technology and science to seemingly improve other countries and strengthen diplomatic ties, Western politicians recognize the BRI as a strategic move to gain influence, describing it as neocolonialist. They assert that the BRI is primarily intended to increase China’s soft power, a country’s cultural and economic influence that persuades other countries into action. This concern is fueled by the lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese Government about the financing of the BRI. Environmentalists worry about the potential damages from mining fossil fuel reserves in countries around the world. Activists are concerned that China’s increased soft power will encourage the spread of policies such as China’s stringent surveillance of online activities. On the other hand, the countries in which China has started projects have been appreciative of China’s partnership. For example, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that he is keen to replicate China’s transition from a poor country to an emerging global superpower. Moreover, more than 130 countries have endorsed the project, happy to use Chinese money and intelligence in order to improve their country’s infrastructure.

The benefits and drawbacks of the Belt and Road Initiative can be argued, but one thing is clear: China’s increased presence in over 60 countries around the world through the BRI seriously challenges the global balance of power. Traditionally, America has been seen as the primary global superpower, but with China increasing its soft power exponentially and expanding its influence in so many countries, that title may be usurped. Furthermore, science and technology are often the key for developing countries to join the modern world, and since China has started to provide this technology globally, it drastically changes where the world looks for innovation. This may make other countries more willing to partner with China rather than the United States for leadership.

China is slowly rewriting the rules of 21st century technology with the Belt and Road Initiative. Through the BRI, they are inviting many other countries to join their vision — a vision that challenges the current Western global order. As China continues to dispute the global status quo, the question remains for other developed nations: should China’s lack of financial transparency and involvement in other countries be challenged or is their global leadership something that should be encouraged?

Anjali Akula is a sophomore in Information Systems with a minor in Computer Science and another minor in Science, Technology and Policy. She’s one of the blog writers for CMU Triple Helix. Outside of academics, she likes taking walks and painting.

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The Triple Helix at Carnegie Mellon University promotes the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, science, technology, and society.