China's Eurasian Pivot: The Silk Road Economic Belt

  • Published

China’s Eurasian Pivot: The Silk Road Economic Belt, by Raffaele Pantucci and Sarah Lain. Routledge, 2017, 108 pp.

Authors Raffaele Pantucci, director of international security studies, and Sarah Lain, research fellow, both of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, examine China’s dealings with its neighbors along the western border. Their concentration is on China’s interchanges with South and Central Asia and its collaboration with other prominent regional states. Interestingly enough, their investigation began before China’s president Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) declaration in September of 2013. China established the BRI to promote the economic growth of China’s Western, Central, and South Asia neighbors through Chinese investment in infrastructure projects—ventures that would ultimately have economic benefits for China. Its intention is to promote peace, stability, and rapport with and among its neighbors. The BRI ultimately shaped the direction the authors took in composing this book.

Pantucci and Lain begin by addressing the role BRI plays in China’s grand strategy. Until the implementation of BRI, China’s strategy was heavily oriented toward its eastern neighbors and the United States, a more westward focus now makes better economic sense. They explain that the BRI affords China an opportunity to further leverage existing infrastructure linking it with Russia along with Central and South Asia in order to create a thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. The initiative not only significantly enhances China’s westward connectivity, it also greatly expands China’s political, economic, social, and cultural influence. The authors assert that the policy shift also helps fill an escalating investment void left by Western nations, such as the US, making China the new champion of Asian development. This is further highlighted by China’s creation of the Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank, the Silk Road Fund, and its growing role in the development of international oriented financial institutions. The value of China’s approach is underscored by an $8 trillion (US) need for investment in Asia infrastructure.

The authors stress the importance of BRI to China’s own infrastructure and economic development. They observe that even though the western part of China has substantial oil, gas, and coal reserves, it is vastly underdeveloped and very poor when compared to the industrialized eastern part of the country. China’s domestic economic disparity coupled with internal ethnic clashes, such as those between Uighur and Han Chinese, have led to protests, violence, extremism, terrorism, and separatist movements. The authors surmise that the BRI would likely promote economic growth, ethnic peace, and domestic security. The BRI is also believed to help alleviate the surplus heavy industrial and construction capacity in Eastern China; the excess capacity could be utilized in the western part of the country as well as exported as infrastructure investment projects throughout BRI countries. Economic growth through BRI is seen as a win-win toward better domestic use of capital and capacity and for facilitating connectivity and commerce westward through Eurasia.

Pantucci and Lain suggest that infrastructure and investment integration by China with BRI countries, particularly those in Central Asia, helps develop capacities in the host country to exploit abundant natural resources in fueling domestic economic growth while exporting excesses to China. For example, China’s investment in the cement industry in Tajikistan resulted in a five-fold increase in cement production in Tajikistan in just three years. Other investments include not only transport infrastructure such as railways but also downstream capacities such as oil refineries. Consequently, the host country acquires foreign currency for other purposes whereas China receives much-needed raw resources. The authors also smartly point out that further linking Russia and China through facets of the BRI, while at the same time Russia is facing deep tensions with the West, directly acknowledges China’s legitimacy in expanding its economic and political interests into Eurasia.

Countries within the region have met this somewhat utopian vision of China’s BRI with a mixed bag of optimism and skepticism. For example, Pakistan sees it as a panacea for all its ills. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan see it as a source of foreign investment and debt financing. At the same time, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan suspiciously question China’s long-term motives in investing in their countries. For example, people in Kazakhstan widely protested Chinese land leasing for agribusiness in their country, accusing the government of selling out to China. Another concern is the general lack of transparency of Chinese business ventures in BRI countries. Host countries voice concerns over China’s dominant position in these business ventures and the large number of Chinese workers often accompanying them.

The authors further perceive numerous enduring challenges that must be overcome by China in order for BRI to be fully successful. China faces an image problem as it projects itself further beyond its borders. There are security risks posed by host countries to Chinese workers. Many BRI countries see Chinese workers as intruders. There are inherent security/political stability issues in many of the BRI countries. The viability and positive return on investment of many funded projects and pending projects have come into question. The risk of default on development loans made to BRI countries is a growing concern. Finally, the availability of adequate funds to create the connectivity, linkages, and commerce necessary for the initiative to be fruitful in the long-run is cause for alarm.

The definitive scope of Pantucci’s and Lain’s work details the reasoning associated with the initiative and China’s employment plan, how the nine bordering countries of China that are directly affected by the BRI understand China’s intent with the program, and identifies how the affected countries perceive the BRI’s relative value compared to their respective interests as well as those of their western bordering neighbors. Finally, it details the likely outcome of the BRI on China’s regional clout (geopolitical, economic, social, and security role/arrangement). In doing so, the authors gleaned valuable insight into why China has chosen a Eurasian pivot and determined what it tangibly looks like then to ultimately inform policy makers seeking to better understand, leverage, or cope with the initiative going forward.

Even though the book is short in length it is rich in substantive insight and analysis. The onsite research the authors conducted and resources they made use of are impressive. They drew upon a wide array of relevant region- and country-specific scholarly works, financial institution reports/assessments, and government documents, along with many other regionally/country-focused papers. Most of these documents are primary sources resulting from works produced by BRI country entities. Collectively they add commendable credence and credibility to the authors’ analysis, as well as the conclusions they draw and recommendations they make for policy makers.

This book will be of particular interest to regionally focused scholars, economics and trade policy makers and practitioners, government development–related agencies, and military leaders and planners. Other individuals and institutions seeking a deeper understanding of China’s BRI, its role in enhancing China’s economic growth, its regional geopolitical influence, and its likelihood in promoting economic prosperity and stability amongst its neighbors will also find this book highly informative.


Dr. David A. Anderson

Professor of Strategic Studies

US Army Command and General Staff College

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."