This article originally appeared in the Cipher Brief.
Forgive free-trade advocates for being a bit disoriented this year. The vertigo hit hard in January, when trade’s most notable defender at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, was not from the West but from the East.
“Say no to protectionism,” Chinese President Xi Jinping urged in his remarks at the meeting.
If Davos was Xi’s debut as a defender of economic openness, the Belt and Road Forum this month is an opportunity to demonstrate that China’s commitment is more than rhetorical.
The Belt and Road is Xi’s signature foreign policy vision. Launched in 2013 as “One Belt, One Road,” the Belt and Road includes two major components, both designed to put China at the center of global economic affairs. The overland “belt” includes new roads and railways that stretch across Central Asia, South Asia, and into Europe. The maritime “road” sweeps down China’s coast, hops across ports in the Indian Ocean, and then moves north to Europe via the Suez Canal.
There’s not much that the Belt and Road effort doesn’t aspire to touch. Functionally, it hopes to improve infrastructure, trade, financial integration, and even people-to-people bonds. Geographically, it aims to cover roughly 65 countries, ranging from China’s neighbors to Ethiopia, Kenya, Chile, and others. Altogether, participating countries include over 60 percent of the world’s population.
Xi’s vision could theoretically affect trade in at least three ways, but each faces challenges in practice. First, Chinese investment in roads, railways, ports, and other hard infrastructure could help facilitate trade and create new patterns of commerce. The Asian Development Bank estimates that developing countries in Asia must invest $26 trillion in infrastructure by 2030 to promote growth, address poverty, and respond to climate change. That would require roughly doubling current levels of investment. China cannot foot that entire bill, or anything close to it, but it could make a significant contribution.
However, building new infrastructure will require navigating a host of risks. Large projects are notoriously difficult to deliver efficiently and effectively, even in the best business environments. In many Belt and Road countries, legal, political, and security challenges loom large. If risks are not adequately addressed, private capital will stay on the sidelines, and rather than facilitating the movement of goods and services, Asia’s infrastructure will remain a major drag on economic growth. Poor infrastructure investments can destroy even more value than they create.
Second, China could use infrastructure lending and other incentives under the Belt and Road banner to sweeten trade negotiations. According to official statements, China aims to conclude free trade agreements with 40 percent of Belt and Road participants by the end of this year. More notable than the specific figures, which, like many Belt and Road statistics, are difficult to disentangle from overlapping efforts, is the explicit emphasis on concluding trade deals. In the past, Chinese officials have described a network of free trade agreements that would support the Belt and Road.
This network is still a far cry from a comprehensive regional agreement, though. China is mainly focused on bilateral trade deals. While lowering barriers between China and individual markets, these deals could further complicate a web of rules that firms struggle to navigate. The same might be said about the 130 transportation agreements that China has concluded with Belt and Road participants. Furthermore, many activities that China describes as supporting the Belt and Road predate the initiative. The main difference is that some of its negotiating partners are now Belt and Road participants.
Finally, China could use the Belt and Road to set standards on some trade-related issues. For decades, trade and investment agreements have been among the primary vehicles for advancing Asian economic integration. Infrastructure projects offer standard-setting opportunities, but across a much narrower range of issues. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, set up by China and now boasting 70 members, promises it will apply best practices, but more efficiently than the World Bank and other multilateral development banks. It is too early to tell whether the AIIB will depart from existing standards, in its definition or application, as it has only invested in 12 projects, mostly through co-financing with other multilateral development banks.
In short, the Belt and Road’s expansiveness is a double-edged sword. Chinese officials can highlight individual successes and, pointing to a long roster of participants, they can claim international support. Beneath its global banner, though, the Belt and Road is mostly bilateral deal-making. Particularly for trade, it is mostly an assortment of activities that China was already pursuing in some form, suggesting that the Belt and Road’s actual impact to date has been mostly at the margins.
In Davos, Xi predicted this month’s forum would “discuss ways to boost cooperation, build cooperation platforms and share cooperation outcomes.” There’s nothing wrong with cooperation, of course. For the Belt and Road to succeed in practice, though, it cannot be all things to all people. Right now, it is a global vision advanced bilaterally. For trade especially, narrowing that vision and broadening its approach – a regional vision advanced multilaterally and with higher standards – might yield better results. Otherwise, rather than simplifying and integrating Asia’s economic landscape, the Belt and Road might further complicate it.
Jonathan E. Hillman is a fellow and director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.