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Unraveling the Belt and Road Initiative: China’s “Building Out” Strategy

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Scholars and analysts have sought to clarify the Chinese Communist Party’s motives for carrying out the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a series of infrastructure investments in countries across the globe. While many emphasize Beijing’s geopolitical interests, this paper argues that the BRI should also be understood as a large-scale effort to create business activities for Chinese companies and workers outside of China. We define the contours of this “building out” strategy by analyzing the stages that typify BRI projects: project selection, project financing, project construction, and post-construction operation and management. Our analysis draws, in large part, on data that we have compiled from a sample of BRI projects. After showing macro-level trends in the data, we offer three in-depth case studies to clarify the underlying mechanisms at work. Our findings suggest that BRI projects are engineered to direct finance and construction bids to Chinese companies, which are typically state-owned.

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  1. China’s going out strategy was launched in the late 1990s, in an effort to internationalize China’s economy by, among other things, attracting foreign investment inflows and promoting foreign investment outflows. There are several similarities between the going out strategy and the BRI, including the dominant role of state-owned enterprises. There are also import differences, with the BRI being much larger in scale and enjoying considerably more financial support from Chinese state-owned bank [13]. Additionally, the BRI is more focused on regional integration than the going out strategy, which was bilateral in nature, and has a clearer geostrategic dimension [14].

  2. It should be noted that these overviews were compiled using only English language sources.

  3. To the extent that this is true, it suggests that Chinese investors hold considerable leverage over hosts, as local content requirements are often imposed on foreign investors by host countries’ governments [41].

  4. According to Hundlani and Kannangara [54], approximately 900 workers were employed at the operational Hambantota port, including approximately 35 Chinese workers.

  5. Casey and Krauss report that the dam runs at around half capacity [59].

  6. This was the subject of a series of lawsuits in Kenya, leading Kenya’s Court of Appeals to conclude in 2020 that the SGR contract was illegal.

  7. Chinese lenders have taken steps to prevent defaults, such as through collateralizing loans against revenue generated from future commodity exports [85].


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Earlier versions of this article were presented at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the International Studies Association, and the Midwest Political Science Association, as well as the Conference on Great Power Competition in the 21st Century at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The authors thank participants in those panels. The authors also thank Haley Burns, Kat Consador, Steve Juarez, June Obata, Sneha Pujani, Lily Sarvestani, Kaitlin Showers, and Rebecca Swyers for excellence research assistance. Finally, the authors thank the editor and reviewers for thoughtful comments and suggestions during the review process.

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Gamso, J., Moffett, M.H. Unraveling the Belt and Road Initiative: China’s “Building Out” Strategy. East Asia 40, 21–36 (2023).

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