The narrative of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as spanning over 65 countries and gathering 62 percent of the world population, 31 percent of its GDP, and 40 percent of global land area should once and for all disappear now that China has announced the extension of the BRI to Latin America.

Ever since Xi Jinping put forward China’s attempt to recreate the old Silk Road in 2013, observers have considered the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to be a project spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa, encompassing around 65 countries that have signed up for it. The two corridors that form the BRI, the Silk Road Economic Belt (the Belt) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the Road), were perceived as two routes that will stretch over Eurasia or the maritime rimland, respectively, to link China with Europe.

But the Belt and Road Initiative has been plagued by misconceptions ever since its unveiling. Most foreign observes have failed to grasp the complexity of the BRI, but the Chinese government also bears part of the blame, having failed to articulate a clear strategy from the beginning and building it up along the way. In 2014, Xinhua, China’s official press agency, presented a map of the BRI, picturing it as two parallel routes: one maritime and the other one by land. This created the impression that the initiative was made up of two routes connecting China and Europe. Another misconception was that the BRI is an infrastructure project focused on building railways, highways, pipelines, or ports. Both readings were simplistic.

The BRI is not a route, but a smart power strategy (a combination between cultural power and economic power) which aims to wrap the entire world, not only Eurasia and Africa, and which has become the leitmotif of China’s foreign policy. The BRI combines hard power elements, like economic investments, with a soft power strategy, like promoting Chinese culture or improving China’s image, to create an international label for Chinese foreign policy.


This article has been published by Andreea Brînză, Vice President of RISAP, in The Diplomat. You can read the rest of the article in The Diplomat.