Does China’s Belt and Road Initiative Challenge the Liberal, Rules-Based Order?

  • Lee JonesEmail author
Original Paper


Rising powers like China are frequently depicted as posing a significant challenge to prevailing, Western-designed norms of global governance. Unsurprisingly, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been described as an assertive grand strategy bent on reconstituting regional or even global order with new governance ideas, norms and rules. Conversely, this paper argues that BRI’s challenge to existing global norms will mostly be unintentional. Through an analysis of key policy documents, it demonstrates that the BRI’s normative content is pro-market and pluralist, failing to attack or present anything like a systematic alternative to the existing liberal order. Nonetheless, aspects of BRI’s implementation will challenge prevailing global governance norms, particularly those relating to investment, aid, and social and environmental protection—but mostly by accident, not design. This is due to the fragmented governance of BRI inside China. Accordingly, BRI will likely erode established norms without offering any coherent alternative.


China Belt and Road Initiative Norms Rules-based international order State transformation 



I am grateful to Zhou Yuping, Yang Kejia and especially Ryan Smith for excellent research assistance, and to Shahar Hameiri, participants in the Fudan conference on The Normative Basis of Global Governance, particularly Tim Dunne, and the journal’s anonymous reviewers for feedback on earlier drafts. Special thanks to Lin Xi.


Australian Research Council Discovery Project DP1701102647 financed the research underpinning this article.


  1. Acharya, Amitav. 2006. Will Asia’s Past Be Its Future? International Security 28 (3): 149–164.Google Scholar
  2. Andornino, Giovanni B. 2017. The Belt and Road Initiative in China’s Emerging Grand Strategy of Connective Leadership. China & World Economy 25 (5): 4–22.Google Scholar
  3. Arase, David. 2015. China’s Two Silk Roads Initiative: What It Means for Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian Affairs 2015: 25–45.Google Scholar
  4. Arrighi, Giovanni. 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  5. Bao, Yu. 2018. The Guiding Role of Chinese Culture in Implementing the BRI. Public Diplomacy Quarterly 2018 (1): 12–16+142.Google Scholar
  6. Bhattacharya, Abanti. 2016. Conceptualizing the Silk Road Initiative in China’s Periphery Policy. East Asia 33 (4): 309–328.Google Scholar
  7. Blanchard, Jean-Marc F. 2008. Harmonious World and China’s Foreign Economic Policy: Features, Implications, and Challenges. Journal of Chinese Political Science 13 (2): 165–192.Google Scholar
  8. Bräutigam, Deborah. 2009. The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Bräutigam, Deborah. 2011. Aid ‘With Chinese Characteristics’: Chinese Foreign Aid and Development Finance Meet the OECD-DAC Aid Regime. Journal of International Development 23 (5): 752–764.Google Scholar
  10. Bull, Hedley. 1977. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  11. Buzan, Barry. 2010. China in International Society: Is ‘Peaceful Rise’ Possible? Chinese Journal of International Politics 3 (1): 5–36.Google Scholar
  12. CAITEC, Research Centre of the SASAC, and United Nations Development Programme China. 2017. 2017 Report on the Sustainable Development of Chinese Enterprises Overseas: Supporting the Belt and Road Regions to Achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Beijing: Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, Ministry of Commerce. Accessed 24 Aug 2017.
  13. Callahan, William A. 2016a. China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the New Eurasian Order. Policy Brief 22. Oslo: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.Google Scholar
  14. Callahan, William A. 2016b. China’s ‘Asia Dream’: The Belt Road Initiative and the New Regional Order. Asian Journal of Comparative Politics 1 (3): 226–243.Google Scholar
  15. Carpenter, Ted Galen. 2005. America’s Coming War with China: A Collision Course Over Taiwan. New York: St Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  16. Chan, Lai-Ha, Pak K. Lee, and Gerald Chan. 2008. Rethinking Global Governance: A China Model in the Making? Contemporary Politics 14 (1): 3–19.Google Scholar
  17. Chin, Gregory T. 2016. Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank: Governance Innovation and Prospects. Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 22 (1): 11–25.Google Scholar
  18. Cooper, Andrew F., and Daniel Flemes. 2013. Foreign Policy Strategies of Emerging Powers in a Multipolar World: An Introductory Review. Third World Quarterly 34 (6): 943–962.Google Scholar
  19. Dellios, Rosita, and R.James Ferguson. 2017. The Human Security Dimension of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Journal of Management and Sustainability 7 (3): 48–62.Google Scholar
  20. European Council on Foreign Relations [ECFR]. 2015. One Belt, One Road: China’s Great Leap. Brussels: ECFR.Google Scholar
  21. Fallon, Theresa. 2015. The New Silk Road: Xi Jinping’s Grand Strategy for Eurasia. American Foreign Policy Interests 37 (3): 140–147.Google Scholar
  22. Fan, Zhou, and Jie Zhou. 2016. On the Construction of China’s Cultural Soft Power in the Background of the Belt and Road Initiative. Journal of Tongji University (Social Science Section) 27 (5): 40–47.Google Scholar
  23. Flemes, Daniel. 2013. Network Powers: Strategies of Change in the Multipolar System. Third World Quarterly 34 (6): 1016–1036.Google Scholar
  24. Friedman, George, and Meredith Lebard. 1991. The Coming War With Japan. New York: St Martins Press.Google Scholar
  25. Gabuev, Alexander. 2017. Belt and Road to Where? Carnegie Moscow Center. Accessed 21 Aug 2018
  26. Gill, Bates, and James Reilly. 2007. The Tenuous Hold of China Inc. Africa. Washington Quarterly 30 (3): 37–52.Google Scholar
  27. Ginsburg, Tom. 2010. Eastphalia as the Perfection of Westphalia. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 17 (1): 27–45.Google Scholar
  28. Grimes, William W. 2011. The Asian Monetary Fund Reborn?: Implications of Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization. Asia Policy 11: 79–104.Google Scholar
  29. Hameiri, Shahar. 2015. China’s “Charm Offensive” in the Pacific and Australia’s Regional Order. Pacific Review 28 (5): 631–654.Google Scholar
  30. Hameiri, Shahar, and Lee Jones. 2018. China Challenges Global Governance? The Case of Chinese International Development Finance and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. International Affairs 94 (3): 573–593.Google Scholar
  31. He, Chi. 2018. The Belt and Road Initiative as Global Public Good: Implications for International Law. In Normative Readings of the Belt and Road Initiative: Road to New Paradigms, ed. Wenhua Shan, Kimmo Nuotio, and Kangle Zhang, 85–104. Cham: Springer International.Google Scholar
  32. He, Yafei. 2017. ‘Belt & Road’ vs. Liberal Order. China-US Focus.–road-vs-liberal-order. Accessed 3 Sep 2017.
  33. Heilmann, Sebastian, Moritz Rudolf, Mikko Huotari, and Johannes Buckow. 2014. China’s Shadow Foreign Policy: Parallel Structures Challenge the Established International Order. China Monitor 18. Berlin: Mercator Institute for China Studies.Google Scholar
  34. Horvath, Robert. 2016. The Reinvention of “Traditional Values”: Nataliya Narochnitskaya and Russia’s Assault on Universal Human Rights. Europe-Asia Studies 68 (5): 868–892.Google Scholar
  35. Ikenberry, John. 2011. The Future of the Liberal World Order. Foreign Affairs, 90 (3): 56.Google Scholar
  36. Johnston, Alastair Iain. 2003. Is China a Status Quo Power? International Security 27 (4): 5–56.Google Scholar
  37. Jones, Lee, and Jinghan Zeng. Forthcoming. Understanding China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”: Beyond “Grand Strategy” to a State Transformation Analysis. Third World Quarterly.Google Scholar
  38. Jones, Lee, and Yizheng Zou. 2017. Rethinking the Role of State-Owned Enterprises in China’s Rise. New Political Economy 22 (6): 743–760.Google Scholar
  39. Kurowska, Xymena. 2014. Multipolarity as Resistance to Liberal Norms: Russia’s Position on Responsibility to Protect. Conflict, Security & Development 14 (4): 489–508.Google Scholar
  40. Laïdi, Zaki. 2012. BRICS: Sovereignty, Power and Weakness. International Politics 49 (5): 614–632.Google Scholar
  41. Leonard, Mark. 2008. What Does China Think?. New York: PublicAffairs.Google Scholar
  42. Li, Xing. 2019. China’s Pursuit of the “One Belt One Road” Initiative: A New World Order with Chinese Characteristics? In Mapping China’s “One Belt One Road” Initiative, ed. Xing Li, 1–27. Cham: Springer.Google Scholar
  43. Ling, L.H.M., and Alisha C. Perrigoue. 2018. OBOR and the Silk Road Ethos: An Ancient Template for Contemporary World Politics. Asian Journal of Comparative Politics 3 (3): 189–193.Google Scholar
  44. Mearsheimer, John. 2010. The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia. The Chinese Journal of International Politics 3 (4): 381–396.Google Scholar
  45. Miller, Tom. 2017. China’s Asian Dream: Quiet Empire Building along the New Silk Road. London: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  46. Naím, Moisés. 2007. Rogue Aid. Foreign Policy March 1. Accessed 13 May 2015.
  47. National Development and Reform Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce. 2015. Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. Accessed 22 May 2016.
  48. Odgaard, Liselotte. 2007. China: Security Cooperation with Reservations. In Global Security Governance: Competing Perceptions of Security in the 21st Century, ed. Emil J. Kirchner and James Sperling, 199–218. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  49. Office of the Leading Group for the Belt and Road Initiative. 2017. Building the Belt and Road: Concept, Practice and China’s Contribution. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. Accessed 21 Aug 2018.
  50. Paradise, James F. 2016. The Role of ‘Parallel Institutions’ in China’s Growing Participation in Global Economic Governance. Journal of Chinese Political Science 21 (2): 149–175.Google Scholar
  51. Ramo, Joshua Cooper. 2004. The Beijing Consensus: Notes on the New Physics of Chinese Power. London: Foreign Policy Centre.Google Scholar
  52. Ray, Rebecca, Kevin P. Gallagher, Andres Lopez, and Cynthia Sanborn. 2015. China in Latin America: Lessons for South-South Cooperation and Sustainable Development. Boston: Boston University. Accessed 30 Aug 2018.
  53. Reilly, James. 2012. A Norm-Taker or a Norm-Maker? Chinese Aid in Southeast Asia. Journal of Contemporary China 21 (73): 71–91.Google Scholar
  54. Reuters. 2018. Empty Hotels, Idle Boats: What Happens When a Pacific Island Upsets China. Irrawaddy, August 20.Google Scholar
  55. Rolf, Steve, and John Agnew. 2016. Sovereignty Regimes in the South China Sea: Assessing Contemporary Sino-US Relations. Eurasian Geography and Economics 57 (2): 249–273.Google Scholar
  56. Rolland, Nadège. 2017. China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’: Underwhelming or Game-Changer? The Washington Quarterly 40 (1): 127–142.Google Scholar
  57. Saull, Richard. 2012. Rethinking Hegemony: Uneven Development, Historical Blocs, and the World Economic Crisis. International Studies Quarterly 56 (2): 323–338.Google Scholar
  58. Sidaway, James D., and Chih Yuan Woon. 2017. Chinese Narratives on “One Belt, One Road” (一带一路) in Geopolitical and Imperial Contexts. The Professional Geographer 69 (4): 591–603.Google Scholar
  59. Sterling, Dahlia Patricia. 2018. A New Era in Cultural Diplomacy: Promoting the Image of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative in Asia. Open Journal of Social Sciences 6 (2): 102–116.Google Scholar
  60. Summers, Tim. 2016. China’s ‘New Silk Roads’: Sub-National Regions and Networks of Global Political Economy. Third World Quarterly 37 (9): 1628–1643.Google Scholar
  61. Swaine, Michael D. 2015. Chinese Views and Commentary on the ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiative. China Leadership Monitor 47: 1–24.Google Scholar
  62. Tekdal, Veysel. 2018. China’s Belt and Road Initiative: At the Crossroads of Challenges and Ambitions. Pacific Review 31 (3): 373–390.Google Scholar
  63. Trivium China. 2018. China Tip Sheet August 28. Accessed 29 Aug 2018.
  64. Vangeli, Anastas. 2018. The Normative Foundations of the Belt and Road Initiative. In Normative Readings of the Belt and Road Initiative: Road to New Paradigms, ed. Wenhua Shan, Kimmo Nuotio, and Kangle Zhang, 59–83. Cham: Springer.Google Scholar
  65. Vangeli, Anastas. 2019. A Framework for the Study of the One Belt One Road Initiative as a Medium of Principle Diffusion. In Mapping China’s “One Belt One Road” Initiative, ed. Li Xing, 57–89. Cham: Springer.Google Scholar
  66. Wan, Ming. 2016. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank: The Construction of Power and the Struggle for the East Asian International Order. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  67. Wang, Yiwei. 2015. ‘Yidai yilu:’ Jiyu yu tiaozhan. [‘One Belt, One Road': Opportunities and Challenges]. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.Google Scholar
  68. Wang, Guiguo. 2017. The Belt and Road Initiative in Quest for a Dispute Resolution Mechanism. Asia Pacific Law Review 25 (1): 1–16.Google Scholar
  69. Wilson, Jeffrey D. 2017. The Evolution of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank: From a Revisionist to Status-Seeking Agenda. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific. Scholar
  70. Yuan, Feng. 2019. The One Belt One Road Initiative and China’s Multilayered Multilateralism. In Mapping China’s “One Belt One Road” Initiative, ed. Li Xing, 91–116. Cham: Springer.Google Scholar
  71. Zeng, Lingliang. 2016a. Conceptual Analysis of China’s Belt and Road Initiative: A Road towards a Regional Community of Common Destiny. Chinese Journal of International Law 15 (3): 517–541.Google Scholar
  72. Zeng, Xianghong. 2016b. The Geopolitical Imaginations of the “One Belt, One Road” Initiative and Regional Cooperation. World Economics and Politics 2016 (1): 46–71+157–158.Google Scholar
  73. Zevson, Nadang. 2015. Chinese Harmonism. Potemkin Review. Accessed 24 April 2018.
  74. Zhou, Weifeng, and Mario Esteban. 2018. Beyond Balancing: China’s Approach towards the Belt and Road Initiative. Journal of Contemporary China 27 (112): 487–501.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Fudan University 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Politics and International RelationsQueen Mary University of LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations