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The Belt and Road Initiative: Unraveling China’s Foreign Investment Strategy

Chinese port
The Port of Lianyungang in mainland China.

Much has been said about China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), both in the context of developing countries but also from a perspective of US hegemony. BRI started as a means of utilizing Chinese cash surpluses and their newly burgeoning domestic workforce to oversee infrastructure development in countries around the world, but especially in Africa, Asia, and South America. China has spent a cumulative one trillion dollars since the investment program’s inception ten years ago. 1 BRI consists of the ‘belt’, or overland routes connecting China to Central, Southeast, and South Asia, and the ‘road’, denoting the maritime network connecting China to the rest of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the rest of the world. 2 By exporting their excess productive capacity, China has hoped to counter US pushes into the Asia-Pacific region, position themselves at the forefront of global trade, and promote economic development in countries lacking capital for infrastructure projects. 3

BRI is a callback to the Silk Road of antiquity and aims to connect the world with a Sino-centric alignment. Though initially focused on connecting China to Europe specifically, China has expanded BRI to the entire world. A decade on in 2023, key customers include Indonesia, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, the UAE, Bolivia, Namibia, Eritrea, and Serbia. 4 The wide array of participatory nations shows how China’s current scope is comprehensive, geographically varied, and focused on strategic importance and development prospects. 

“To date, 147 countries—accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population and 40 percent of global GDP—have signed on to [BRI] projects or indicated an interest in doing so.” 5
-Council on Foreign Relations

From a Chinese perspective, BRI is a no-brainer; it utilizes a plethora of existing resources to build new relationships, create new trade partners, and spread Chinese influence globally. Their economy has reached a level susceptible to the ‘middle-income trap’, where countries have historically struggled to transition to higher skilled manufacturing, goods, and services. 6 By exporting their currency, workers, and industrial capacity all while sharpening expertise and fostering positive international relationships, BRI is uniquely positioned to help China in the long run despite the steep price tag. As an added benefit, foreign infrastructure investment is, at minimum, effective in shifting global opinion on China, and at maximum, swaying UN votes and overall public opinion. Additionally, diversification of trade provides insurance against disruptions stemming from potential flare ups with the west. 7

road in Ethiopia
A highway in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia constructed through Chinese investment.

Considerations of BRI partners

On the other hand, BRI has numerous implications for the nations invested in. Though exact outcomes are yet to be determined, BRI has a general benefit globally and regionally. Not only is it leading to a significant rise in global income through trade cost reductions, it is also projected to lift millions of people out of extreme poverty and even more from moderate poverty during its lifetime. 8 Chinese investment, while not a silver bullet, has been a genuine and consistent option for nations seeking growth. From the perspective of the Global South, BRI provides funding for much needed public projects that wouldn't exist otherwise. This is useful for governments positioning to stay in power and those pursuing legitimate betterment of their nation all the same.

Western Skepticism

Western governments and leaders are much less keen on BRI. The pervasive feeling is that it challenges US interests around the globe and fundamentally re-frames trade towards China. 9 BRI can be seen as a direct competitor to the longstanding capitalist institutions of the IMF and World Bank, both of which supply developmental loans to partner nations. Since the end of WWII and the beginning of the Marshall Plan, the US has been the driving force in providing investment and seeking to grow foreign economies. Western-centric loans no longer have a monopoly on supporting development, which is especially attractive to countries who would otherwise not have access to IMF or World Bank funding due to politics and feuds with the US, EU, or others. Recently, the US has even placed increased emphasis and funding on multilateral development banks as a counterpoint to BRI. 10

bridge in Montenegro
The Moračica Bridge in Montenegro, constructed through Chinese investment.

Western criticism over BRI lies under two primary points: increased Chinese spheres of influence garnering political support, and state-sponsored debt traps which have indebted Global South participants to China. To the first point, BRI has already been successful in pushing Chinese ambitions with regards to Taiwan, gaining overall political capital, and resisting isolation from the US. 11 In the context of great power competition, the US is especially concerned that several EU states, key allies, and other world powers have cooperated with China on BRI projects at various points. To the second point, critics are quick to point out that Chinese loans can function, and are at times used, as debt traps. This leverage over other countries can be harmful to the international community, and it is no coincidence that rising BRI debt in several countries has prompted others to reconsider. Over-reliance on Chinese infrastructure investment remains a concern of the Global South. 12 Inherently, any country is free to use Chinese funding and accept foreign loans as much as they desire, but at the same time it is imperative to establish mutually beneficial agreements which protect interests and do not handicap recipients of foreign infrastructure investment.


Chinese train in Georgia
A Chinese train operating in Georgia.

In summation, China's BRI stands out as a multifaceted global strategy that intertwines the economic, geopolitical, and developmental goals of China with the Global South’s necessity of infrastructure investment. Over the past decade, China's trillion-dollar investment has laid the groundwork for a vast network connecting nations across Asia, Africa, and beyond. In positioning itself as a true global economic leader, China aims to address domestic challenges and reshape the international order in the same breath. While BRI offers opportunities for growth and connectivity, concerns persist over debt traps and geopolitical maneuvering. BRI’s existence within the current era of great power competition underscores the complex dynamics shaping the future of foreign investment, trade, international influences, and development.

Works Cited

1 "China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Investment Report 2023 H1," Green Finance and Development Center, August 2023,

2 Tessa Wong, "Belt and Road Initiative: Is China's trillion-dollar gamble worth it?," BBC News, October 2023,

3 "China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative," Council on Foreign Relations, February 2023,

4 "China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Investment Report 2023 H1," Green Finance and Development Center.

5 "China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative," Council on Foreign Relations.

6 Ibid.

7 Wong, "Belt and Road Initiative: Is China's trillion-dollar gamble worth it?"

8 Maryla Maliszewska and Dominique van der Mensbrugghe, "The Belt and Road Initiative: Economic, Poverty and Environmental Impacts," World Bank Group, April 2019,

9 "China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative," Council on Foreign Relations.

10 "A reboot of the World Bank and IMF tests US influence," Financial Times, October 2023,

11 Felix K. Chang, "China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Politics Over Economics," Foreign Policy Research Institute, September 2023,

12 Wong, "Belt and Road Initiative: Is China's trillion-dollar gamble worth it?"


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