The Belt and Road Initiative: A Brief Introduction

Belt and Road, Editorial

China’s Belt and Road Initiative isn’t easy to pin down, but here’s a brief explainer that gives it a go. This is a slimmed down introduction to the ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road’.

Belt and Road Initiative: What’s in a name?

To talk about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), we first need to clarify what we mean when we say ‘BRI’.

BRI’s full name is a mouthful:

Chinese: ‘丝绸之路经济带和21世纪海上丝绸之路’

Pronounced: ‘sichou zhi lu jingjidai he ershiyi shiji haishang sichou zhi lu‘.

Translated: ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road’

This long name is almost always shortened to 一带一路 (yi dai yi lu) in Chinese, which literally means ‘One Belt One Road’.

One Belt One Road (OBOR) was the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) second preference for BRI’s official English name. Initially they went for ‘Silk Roads’, and ‘New Silk Road’ is still much used in English language media. More recently, the powers that be seem to have settled on the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which we shorten to BRI.

The physical space of the ‘land Belt’ and the ‘sea Road’

Confusingly, the “belt” portion of BRI refers to several “corridors” spanning Centra Asia and the Eurasian continent generally, whilst the “road” is a “sea road”, focusing on China’s Southeast and the wider Indian Ocean across to East Africa.

So far, no official map of BRI has been released. This is because BRI is far from being a concrete, cohesive project that can be easily mapped. However, it helps to have a visual aid, so we’ve included a few maps below.

Xinhua Map of the Belt and Road Initiative
This is the closest thing to an official BRI map, published by state news agency Xinhua.


Map of the Belt and Road Initiative from McKinsey
This is a 2015 map of the Belt and Road from McKinsey Global Institute.


MERICS Belt and Road Initiative Map
This is the most detailed map of BRI, published by the Mercator Institute for China Studies. You can view another of their maps in full scale here.

Quick history of the Belt and Road Initiative

The Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) was announced by President Xi Jinping in September 2013, on a visit to Kazakhstan, and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) was announced a month later in Indonesia.

Both routes are essentially an amalgam of projects, (roads, railroads, ports, and even football stadiums) that officials say are aimed at regional development and connectivity.

But the ambitions of the project are broader, with ‘financial integration’, ‘cooperation in science and technology’, ‘cultural and academic exchanges’, and trade ‘cooperation mechanisms’ being priorities. The scope of BRI is colossal, with already existing, long-planned, and tangentially related domestic projects all being incorporated under the BRI “brand”.

While a lot of people in the UK still haven’t heard of BRI, it’s everywhere in China, with the government going full steam ahead to push the initiative.

Spending money to make money

Beijing has already committed a lot of money to BRI, most famously through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the $40 billion Silk Road Fund. The AIIB was conceived in the same year as BRI, with shared goals of funding overseas development, but has become less associated with the initiative since 2013.

Ultimately, the clout of any multilateral development bank pales in comparison to that of the big state owned policy banks (for instance, China Exim Bank has made $90 billion worth of BRI loans), reminding us that BRI is very much an initiative driven by China bilaterally. 

But, what is BRI really?

Despite the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) being held this May (2017) in Beijing, concrete plans and specific routes are still lacking, with the only official plan being the generic ‘Visions and Actions’ plan published in 2015.

This is partly because BRI is a very long term initiative. One Renmin University report puts BRI’s deadline at 2049, just in time for the centenary of the People’s Republic of China. BRI is Xi Jinping’s baby, and it is being driven by powerful political forces, but the actual route and physical nature of BRI will be decided by the vagaries of corporate dealings and the whims of local politics on the ground.

The abstract nature of BRI commonly prompts charges of vacuity, but it should be emphasised that BRI is being rapidly realised, and that it does have a physical reality. For instance, in countries like Tajikistan, Chinese built infrastructure is literally keeping the lights on.

What BRI means is a matter of opinion. Depending on what you read, it’s either an economic initiative aimed at fostering international development, Xi Jinping’s grand strategy for China’s rise to regional dominance, a geopolitical project aimed at energy security, an attempt to improve neighbourhood relations, or a plan to rid China of excess capital and overcapacity.

The boring truth is that BRI is probably all of these things at once.


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