China’s BRI: Toward a Hybrid International Order with Socialist Characteristics?

This year marks the 10th anniversary of President Xi Jinping’s launch of China’s flagship, One Belt One Road (OBOR), later referred to as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Echoing the historic Silk Road, the ancient trade network of Eurasia that connected the East and West, BRI is the most ambitious and expensive infrastructure plan in world history. Writing about BRI’s future, the British Economist once worried that “All roads lead to Beijing.”

In September 2013, on a visit to Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan, President Xi advocated the establishment of a “Silk Road Economic Belt.” A month later, addressing the Indonesian parliament, he proposed a “Maritime Silk Road of the 20th Century. The trans-continental corridor links China with Southeast Asia, South Asia, Russia and Europe by land. The new sea trade route connects Chinese coast regions with southeast and south Asia, the South Pacific, the Middle East and Eastern Africa, all the way to Europe.

BRI was later extended to include Latin America and initiatives to Polar regions through the “Silk Road on Ice” in the Arctic, a Digital Silk Road and another to outer space via the Space Information Corridor. Lastly, special mention should be made of The Green Silk Road, the scope of which includes reducing climate emissions, reducing pollution and protecting biodiversity. This is part of China’s prioritizing sustainable development under the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In sum, the BRI seeks to promote economic globalization, multipolarity, poverty reduction, livelihood improvement, cultural diversification and environmental protection.

The BRI is China’s signature foreign policy effort, in Xi’s words, to help achieve a “community of common destiny” which encompasses a “commonality of shared interests” as it “complements other economies” on the way to providing “one home for man.” Tang Qifang, a scholar at the China Institute of International Studies, describes BRI as “The concept of a community of common destiny transcending all sorts of differences in human society and targets the greatest possible benefits for all.” This embodies, “The Chinese aspiration to share power and development with the world.” (When Noam Chomsky was asked what he thought about the China-proposed “human community with a shared future, he replied “That’s exactly what we need.”)

And, Xi has repeatedly stressed that the nation’s destiny is “interwoven with that of another dialogue rather than confrontation, partnerships instead of alliances should be the pursuit of all nations in a win-win project.” [1] In keeping with this sentiment, China will transfer its competitive productive capacity as its industries possess a competitive edge. 

In a 2018 speech Xi said,

To respond to the call of the times, China is ready to jointly promote the Belt and Road Initiative with partners. We hope to create new drivers to power common development through this new platform of international cooperation; and we hope to turn it into a road of peace, prosperity, openness, green development and innovation. And a road brings together different civilizations.” [2]

On numerous occasions, Xi has stressed that “We Chinese love peace. No matter how strong it may become China will never seek hegemony or expansion. It will never inflict its past suffering on any nation.”

It’s not lost on the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America that when colonizers built infrastructure it facilitated outward-bound routes whereas the Chinese infrastructure serves internal connections within the continent. W. Gyude Moore, former Minister for Public Works in Liberia, didn’t mince words when he said, “China has built more infrastructure in Africa than the West did in centuries.” [3]

As of January 2023, 152 countries and 32 international organizations had signed a Memorandum of  Understanding (MOU)  and this includes 75% of the world’s population and half of the world GDP. Some economic forecasts predict that by 2027, BRI’s worldwide projects will number 2,600 valued at $3.7 trillion.

 The banishment of selfishness from foreign policy. What a concept. Brotherhood in action.

Further, data show that the cumulative value of trade in goods between China and countries along the BRI routes reached nearly $11 trillion between 2013 and 2021, with a two-way investment reaching more than $230 billion.

According to a 2022 World Bank forecast, if only the BRI transportation infrastructure projects are eventually carried out, by 2030, the BRI will generate $1.6 trillion in revenues for the globe or 1.3 percent of global GDP. And up to 90 percent of the revenues will go the partnering countries. [4]

Thousands of projects (3,000 in Africa, alone), initially focused on roads. ports, railways, pipelines, power stations. More recently, there are cross-border fiber optic cables, space networks, schools, hospitals, solar panels, health care and financial services. Projects range from the Sudanese Railways Authority receiving a first installment of 21 locomotives which will significantly improve rail capacity, and 620 Lifan taxi cars in Montevideo, Uruguay to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. At a cost of $95.5 billion, it involves a port, highways, airport, fiber optic cables, railways and power plants.  Many of the latter are running on solar, hydro and wind power.

 In June, 2023, Egypt and China announced a BRI investment deal worth more than $8 billion for the Suez Canal Zone which will allow Chinese companies access to African and European markets, while taking advantage of the canal’s strategic position. Another notable project, the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail in Indonesia at at cost between $6-8 billion encountered logistical problems after being scheduled to begin service in July, 2023. The Chinese would be the first to acknowledge that BRI is not a miracle worker, success is not invariably guaranteed and although it originated in China, BRI belongs to all the members.

Recent BRI projects in Latin America include the $1.52 billion Fourth Bridge over the Panama Canal and the $5 billion Bogota metro line 1 in Colombia. In early June, 2023(, in official visits to Beijing, Honduran President Xiomara Castro expressed interest in joining BRI and signed 17 trade agreements with China and Argentina agreed to projects involving infrastructure, energy, economy and trade. Other projects are underway in Chile, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. At the end of 2021, Chinese investments in Latin America exceeded $450 billion.  It should be noted that the U.S. has expressed its pique over BRI projects, especially in Panama, and has warned Latin America about Chinese BRI deals that were “too good to be true.”

Clearly, Latin America will not be amenable if China exhibits neo-imperial behavior and begins contradicting Xi’s pledge of “providing harmony, security and prosperity to both China and its neighbors” and seeks to impose its influence. Seemingly recognizing this, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has taken pains to emphasize that BRI “should not be viewed “through the outdated Cold War mentality.” [5]

Addressing and expanding this concern, Peng Guangquin, a retired major general and advisor to the Chinese National Security Commission, writes that:  “BRI does not limit the nature of a given country’s  political system, is not underline by ideology, does not create tiny circles of friends, does not set up trade protectionism, does not set up economic blockade, does not exercise control of other countries’ economic lifelines or change other countries’ political systems. [6]

Finally, more than 700 million of the globe’s extremely poor people live along the BRI’s and addressing the wealth disparity of the international order imposed on the Global South is a BRI priority. China, with a population of 1.4 billion, is now free of extreme poverty after it was eradicated for 850 million people. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang has said that the Belt and Road initiative had accomplished this for 40 million people. This number accords with a World Bank study from four years ago that concluded BRI could lift 32 million out of moderate poverty and 7.6 out of extreme poverty.

Will BRI flounder and fizzle out? Back in 2017, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres praised BRI’s “immense potential,” lauded it for having “sustainable development as the overarching objective” and pledged the “United Nations system stands ready to travel this road with you.” [7] In 2022, China’s engagement through financial investment and contractural cooperation in 147 countries was USD 67-8 billion on over 200 deals. This was about the same as in 2021 and for 2023, and more BRI engagement is expected because strict COVID restrictions were lifted.

We do know, from a report issued by Ernst & Young that Chinese trade with BRI countries in Q1 of this year was U.S. $31.66 billion, an increase of 9.2%. It should be mentioned that there is no budget line for BRI in the Chinese government’s budget, rather, it remains a platform for launching a multitude of projects from vision to reality. In the future, we should expect less bilateral arrangements and more emphasis on bringing other countries into a quasi-governance structure, something on the order of BRI steering committee. And also more collaboration with the UN acting as an umbrella-type body. [8]

In 2017, the BRI was written into the Chinese Communist Party’s Constitution as an indicator of its importance. Australian Professor Jane Colley, who has studied BRI from its inception, believes “They are absolutely still advancing it” and as far as outside pressure, she adds that, “Any idea of containing them or forcing countries to pick a side — it’s a very risky game to play.” [9] And after a comprehensive look at BRI, the mainstream publication Euromoney, concedes that,“The BRI is neither dead nor dying but is quietly mutating into something much larger and — whisper it — perhaps better.” [10]

Will the BRI prove to be a platform that offers an alternative to the capitalist world order?  The most comprehensive and objective  attempt at predicting what BRI will resemble in 2035 contains various scenarios. The most optimistic, the “international BRI,” assumes the world will have entered a new phase of globalization. This world will be less Chinese, although the renminbi RMB) will be widely accepted as a reserve currency.

This BRI will incorporate “Chinese values” but this stage will be neither Western nor Chinese nor will it lead to China as the new hegemonal state. There will be increased cooperation, the option China committed to at the 75th UN General Assembly. [11] In short, it will be a “thoroughly hybrid paradigm of global cooperation. [12] One factor, that might tend to mitigate that optimistic rendering is that the amount of finance available to for BRI projects might be constrained by the need to focus on domestic economic priorities.

U.S Opposition to BRI

In 2011, two years before President Xi unveiled BRI, Yan Xuetang penned an opinion piece in the New York Times, titled “How China Can Defeat America.”

Yan, one of China’s foremost international relations scholars and Dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, offered his explanation for China’s eventual rise and the slow decline of the United States. By interrogating the particulars of national leadership in China’s past, Yan concluded that morality might well play a key role in competition between the two great powers.

Yan identifies  himself as a political realist, a school which assumes international international politics is a zero-sum game. But unlike most scholars in this field, Yen argued that “morally informed authority”can play a key role in shaping international competition between the China and the United States. This “humane authority,” creates a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad” and in the international competition between the two great powers, this will win hearts and minds and “separate the winners from the losers.” [13] One gets the sense that Yan is implicitly implying that the U.S. will fail in this competition but he’s also challenging his own government to take advantage of this opportunity.

Eight years later, in his 2019 groundbreaking book “Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers,” Yan wrote that “moral actions help [a rising power] to establish credibility.” Yan never abjures the existence of power hierarchies and that anarchy prevails in relations among nations. However, morally informed leadership can determine the outcome of the competition — without resorting to military confrontation. This moral realism “with Chinese characteristics” can be described as a form of enlightened self-interest.

This “morally informed leadership… the side that wins the most international support will win the competition.” This should be a prime consideration in conducting foreign policy gains and “enables its leadership to become favorable to the majority of UN members.”

When the BRI was first announced by China in 2013, it did not immediately set off alarm bells in Washington. But later, a study done for the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, an organization which sets the American empire’s imperial agenda, warned that “The BRI is here to stay and poses significant risks to U.S. economic and political interests and to longer term security implications.” [14]

After the BRI had been in existence for seven years, it was characterized as China’s “means of weaponizing globalization to create commercial and political order centered around dependence on China.” [15]  Both of these succinct summations reveal that the U.S. view of the BRI cannot be divorced from how U.S. oligarchs and the military industrial complex perceive China more generally and here we return to the aforementioned realist school of international relations.

American political scientist Hans Morgenthau’s book Politics Among Nations, first published in 1948, became the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy for at least four decades. It’s fair to say that Morgenthau was the father of the realist school and his book was adopted as the primary text in colleges and universities across the country. My undergraduate political science professor had been one of Morgenthau’s graduate students at the University of Chicago and my copy of Politics Among Nations was heavily underlined in preparation for class discussion and exams.

In brief, the political realist assumes that all people are by “nature” greedy, aggressive and fiercely competitive. Morgenthau counseled that “Politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.” [16] Further, “The struggle for power is universal in time and space and is an unavoidable fact of experience.” As such, the realist concludes that states, the actors on the international stage, must focus on power. No universal morality exists and power politics is amoral.

At the time his book was published, the outcome of the Chinese Revolution was still a year away but in an essay written in the 1960s, Morgenthau predicted that “China may well in the long run carry the gravest implications for the rest of the world.” Given this likelihood, he advised that U.S. strategy should be to establish an island chain running from Japan down to the Philippines so that one power could not attain a hegemonic position in Asia. [17] It should noted that prudence was a key concept in Morgenthau’s theory and the wise leader should be extremely careful in determining the national interest. It was on that basis that he was an early and active opponent of the Vietnam War. Whether Morgenthau would find common cause with those willing to go war over Taiwan remains an open question.

John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago political science professor and arguably the most influential realist today, asserts that “The ultimate goal of every great power is to maximize its share of world power and eventually to dominate the system.” [18] In terms of geopolitics “The U.S. will have no choice but to adopt a realist policy, simply because it must prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon in Asia.” Further, he explains that,

The U.S. does not tolerate peer competitors. As it demonstrated in the 20th century, it is determined to remain the world’s only regional hegemon. Therefore, the U.S. can be expected to go to great lengths to contain China and ultimately weaken it to the point where it is no longer capable of ruling the roost in Asia. In essence, the U.S. is likely to behave towards China much the way it behaved towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

A contemporary and highly influential iteration of the realist school is defense analyst Elsbridge Colby’s Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. [19] Colby, grandson of former CIA Director William Colby, was the primary architect of the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy. Colby’s effort is the best example I know of that lays out, chapter and verse, how the U.S. foreign policy elite is preparing for possible limited war with China and if necessary, nuclear war. Reaction from other realist strategies is typified by Robert Kaplan’s book cover blurb in which he gushes that Colby “reaches a level of theoretical mastery akin to Hans Morgenthau’s “Politics Among Nations.”

To maintain U.S. global domination, Colby  states the following about China:

We are facing a peer superpower — a generational challenger…China’s first step is a hegemonic position over Asia…then from that position they will be able to gain global predominance from which China will be able to essentially hold sway or influence over the entire world, including of course, Europe, but also the United States.

To prevent this outcome,

Requires that we ruthlessly focus, and that take controversial and aggressive steps ready ourselves now to avoid worse outcomes later. The problem is that we have not been doing nearly enough of these things. On our current course we are courting disaster.

And further, if all else fails, “If China is willing to use nuclear weapons and the United States is not, Beijing will dominate over whatever interests are at stake — whether Taiwan’s fate, that of another U.S. ally or free American access to Asia more generally.” And in a dire warning, Colby asserts that “If China succeeds we can forget about housing, food, savings, affording college for our kids and other domestic needs. The end of ordinary citizen’s property will be here. China would make American society worse off and more susceptible to intense disputes over a stagnant economic pie.”

Prudence was a key concept in Morgenthau’s theory and the wise leader should be careful in circumscribing the “national interest.” It was on that basis that Morgenthau was an early and active opponent of the Vietnam War which he felt lay outside U.S. national interest.

Given the preceding, it’s my sense that U.S. realists view BRI as vast and growing phalanx of Trojan Horses out of which will emerge the means to challenge Washington’s unipolar position. A system that features peaceful development and the promise of “common prosperity” can’t be accommodated within the realist school. As Mearsheimer asserts, irrespective of ideology, “The ultimate goal of every great power is to maximize its share of world power and eventually dominate the globe.”

The BRI is seen as part of a zero-sum game in which Washington’s unipolar world dominance will be eliminated along with a “rules-based international order. ” Speaking on the CBS program 60 Minutes (May 2, 2021), U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Our purpose is…to uphold this rules-based order that China is posing a challenge to. Anyone who poses a challenge to that order, we’re doing to stand up and defend it.” In truth, this order is one which the United States imposed on the world to perpetuate its hegemony. This elusive set of rules, a copy of which ordinary Americans have yet to see, has been thoroughly dissected by Kim Petersen who notes: “It is a given that the rules-based order is an American linguistic instrument designed to preserve it as a global hegemon.”

BRI notions of win-win outcomes and a common destiny for mankind simply can’t be accommodated in the mindset of the realist practitioners within the U.S. national security state.  They only see it as a geopolitical tool, wielded by China, who CIA Director William Burns claims, is the “most important geopolitical threat facing” the United States and if not stopped will eventually challenge American global hegemony.

Given the preceding, it’s unwarranted to surmise that a decade of BRI’s positive contributions to national development and the promise of more to come, is even viewed as more of a threat to U.S. monopoly capital’s interests than China’s rapidly growing military preparedness. That is, BRI is a type of normative power that might allow for the creation of a new international order with multilateral institutions that replace the existing ones without engaging in military conflict with the United States, thus “killing two birds with one stone.” For the realist, intent on defending the U.S. empire:

It goes without saying that this counter-hegemonic geopolitical endeavor is much more threatening to the United States than the geo-strategic actorness of China than the territorial empire which is mainly limited to military actions in China’s maritime vicinity. [20]

This is because BRI’s projects in the Global South stand in sharp relief to their collective memory of the American empire’s history brutal exploitation at the expense of other, of military intervention, giving covert support to opposition groups, stealing natural resources, regime change, CIA coups, assassinations and, of course, the prolongation of structural violence. And even after achieving independence, sometimes after years of liberation struggles, the only development option available has been the capitalist one with its mandated austerity measures that further hastened widespread misery.

The U.S. and its European vassals cannot compete in terms of scale, financing or political will and therefore have nothing to offer but more of the same. Biden’s “Build Back Better” and the EU’s “Global Gateway” are rudderless and lack any domestic support. BRI has no serious competitors. Predatory capitalism is in deep trouble and the window of opportunity to act is closing. As such, the Pentagon may try to sabotage BRI by other means, including provoking China into a military confrontation, possibly in the South China Sea, with all the risks of confrontation between two nuclear powers.

Earlier this year, Air Force General Mike “unrepentant lethality” Minihan predicted a war with China within the next two years. In a memo to those under his command, he stressed preparing “to fight and win inside the first island range, running through Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. And in speech last September for a 16,000 member aerospace convention, Gen. Minihan declared: “Lethality matters most. When you kill your enemy, every part of life is better. Your food tastes better. Your marriage is stronger.” It’s not clear to what degree Minihan is an outlier but the Pentagon may try to indirectly sabotage BRI by other means, including provoking China into a military confrontation, possibly in the South China Sea, with of all the risks of a war between two nuclear powers.

This requires fostering public fears and paranoia about China and that explains why the mass media machine’s demonization of China is picking up speed. It seems to be working: A March 20-26, 2023 Pew Research Poll, a large majority (84%) of adult Americans now hold a negative view of China and only 14% a positive view, the lowest share ever recorded. And 4 in 10 describe China as “an enemy of the United States,” up 13 points since last year and a majority say the U.S. and China cannot work together to solve international problems. 75% of young Americans (18-25) have an unfavorable opinion of the country and those with a college degree are more likely to hold an unfavorable view than those with some college or less. It’s my sense that within this fevered smearing of “evil” China is an implicit war-mongering message: Something must be done to stop China’s rise in the world. Whether exposure to relentless Sino-phobia will translate into public support for an actual war should never be assumed. And leaves a very narrow and perhaps only temporary opening for counter-narratives that might preserve BRI as an antidote to Western imperialism while increasing the chances for “a human community with a shared destiny.”


1. Xi’s World Vision: A Community of Common Destiny, A Shared Home for Humanity, January 15,2017.

2. Chinese President Xi Jinping, speech at the opening ceremony of the 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit.

3. W. Gyde Moore, Africa-China Review, August, 2020. China has been involved in Africa since the 1950s. Africa welcomed China’s role as a new source of finance and Beijing generally played a constructive role. Deborah Brautigam provides the comprehensive, definitive and corrective account in, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009; also, “Chinese Investors in Africa Have Had ‘Significant and Persistently Positive’ Long-Term Effects Despite Controversy,” Eurasia Review, February 1, 2021; And for a thorough debunking of the “Chinese Debt Trap Myth.”

4. “China’s BRI ‘circle of friends’ expanding,” Helsinki Times, 1/16/2023.

5. Z.Wang, “Understanding the Belt and Road Initiative from the Relational Perspective,” Chinese Journal of International Relations, Vol.3, No.1 (2021). As such the BRI will assist the gradual evolution of the existing system “into a more fair and more inclusive system.” Fu Ying, “Is China’s Choice to Submit to the U.S. or Challenge It?” Huffington Post, May 26, 2015.

6. As found in Nedege Rolland, China’s Vision For A New World Order, NBR Special Report, No. 83. January 2020, p. 40-41.

7. Antonio Guerres, “Remarks at the opening of the Belt and Road Forum,” United Nations, May 14, 2017.

9. Silk Road briefing 2023-05-15 on China’s overseas investments.

10. For more on the subject, see Huiyao Wang, “How China can multilaterialize the BRI,” East Asian Forum, 11 March 2023.

11. “What is going on with China’s Belt and Road Initiative?” 23 May 2023.

12. Ozturk, I (2019) “The belt and road initiative as a hybrid international goal,” Working Papers in East Asian Studies, November 2019.

12. Elliot Wilson, “Not dead yet: The future of China’s belt and road,” Euromoney, September 22, 2022.

13. Yan Xuetang, “How China Can Defeat America,” New York Times, January 12, 2011.

14. “China’s belt and road: implications for the United States,” CFR, Independent Task Force Report No. 79.

15. U.S. Economic and Security Review Commission. 2020 Report to the Congress of the U.S. – Economic and Security Review.

16. It’s no coincidence that the realist take on human nature is congruent with the assumptions underlying capitalism and provide an ideological rationale for its practitioners. For a fact-based refutation, see, Gary Olson, Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (New York: Springer Publishing, 2012).

17. Hans Morgenthau, Essays of a Decade: 1960-70. (New York: Praeger, 1970).

18. John Mearsheimer, “Can China Rise Peacefully?” The National Interest, October 25, 2014.

19. Eldridge A. Colby, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021. For an extensive look at Colby’s family, wealthy connections and the genesis of this book, see, William A. Shoup, “Giving War a Chance” Monthly Review, May 1, 2022.

20. Theodore Tudoroiu, “The Belt and Road Initiative and China’s New International Order,” Munk School, February 14, 2023.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Contact: Per usual, thanks to Kathleen Kelly, my in-house ed. Read other articles by Gary.