Chris Miller for The American Interest
China’s infrastructure investment plan looks impressive—until you look a little closer.
Having invited 29 world leaders to Beijing the other week to celebrate his Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised his audience more than $100 billion in new investment. Presidents and prime ministers from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan were happy to jostle for photo ops with Xi as they sought to attract Chinese money for roads and bridges. But the initiative is a muddle—and not only because one clumsy translation (“one belt one road”) has been replaced, confusingly, by another (“Belt and Road Initiative”). The bigger problem is the substance.
There is a logic at the core of the Belt and Road—Asia needs more infrastructure—but thanks to jumbled strategic thinking and a suffocating amount of PR fluff, Xi’s flagship initiative looks set to disappoint. Asian and European countries lining up to attract Chinese investment in new roads and bridges will receive less money than the headline figures suggest. China itself will discover that lending money to its more poorly governed neighbors is not always a profitable business. And foreign policy analysts who see the Belt and Road as a Chinese-style Marshall Plan will be disappointed as the bubble of sky-high expectations pops. For the United States, there is little to fear in the Belt and Road. Asia may get some useful new roads, but the region will also see the limits of Chinese power projection, even in a sphere such as infrastructure where China has a comparative advantage.