China’s Belt and Road: One Initiative, Three Strategies

China's Belt and Road
One Initiative, Three Strategies

by Joel Wuthnow
January 29, 2019

The chapter finds that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reflects both China’s global aspirations and domestic economic and political imperatives but will have to overcome a range of challenges and uncertainties.

Executive Summary


BRI is one of the most notable manifestations of China’s rising global power, yet its drivers and implications remain clouded in uncertainty. BRI is composed of three distinct strategies, each with its own goals, tools, and sets of challenges. Politically, it enhances the image of both Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party but has to contend with public ambivalence and distorted bureaucratic incentives. Economically, BRI benefits a number of Chinese interest groups, including select provinces and cities, as well as state-owned enterprises, but faces a panoply of economic, legal, and governance risks. Geopolitically, the initiative strives to create a more stable frontier, advance key partnerships, diversify energy sources, and position China to compete more effectively with the U.S. Yet it has been hobbled by hedging among recipients and growing international skepticism about its purposes and ramifications.

  • BRI illustrates a number of lessons about China’s status as an emerging global power, including its strategic flexibility, use of economic statecraft, multilayered goals and motivations, and contradictions within its own bureaucratic system.
  • If left unchecked, BRI could threaten the sovereignty of recipients and undermine U.S. strategic interests. This outcome, however, is not preordained. China’s own limitations, hedging by partners, and financing alternatives may all work in the opposite direction.
  • The U.S. cannot compete symmetrically with BRI due to resource and political constraints. A better approach is to leverage U.S. comparative advantages, including alliances, security partnerships, and values, to retain regional balance, market access, and liberal norms.

Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

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