The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was set in motion by Xi Jinping in two speeches. During his address to the Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan in September 2013, Xi proposed the idea of a Silk Road Economic Belt, connecting China to Europe via land, in order to “forge closer ties, deepen cooperation and expand the development space in the Eurasian region.” One month later, as he was addressing the Indonesian parliament in Jakarta, Xi proposed the creation of a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, connecting China to Europe via sea, that would increase connectivity and maritime cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road became “One Belt, One Road” for short. In late 2015, the central government issued guidelines on standardizing the English translation, specifically demanding that “initiative” should now be used in association with Belt and Road, whereas “strategy,” “project,” “program,” and “agenda” should not be used. One Belt, One Road became Belt and Road Initiative in English, but its Chinese name remained “Yidai Yilu.”
The historical reference to the ancient Silk Road, now buried within the BRI abbreviation, is still unmistakable. The term “Silk Road” was coined by German geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen in 1877. In China, the ancient trading routes across Eurasia were more prosaically called the northern and southern routes.
The reference to the ancient Silk Road was not chosen by chance. It conjures up images of peaceful and diverse exchanges from one prosperous end of the Eurasian continent to the other and is easily identifiable in countries outside China as a shared heritage defying civilizational differences. Chinese sources never refer to BRI as the “New Silk Road.” This term is the name of a U.S. initiative envisioned in 2011 as a means to further integrate Afghanistan with its neighbors via the reconstruction of infrastructure links broken by decades of conflict.
Beyond historical references, the official narrative attached to the public representations of BRI is mainly framed around “peace and development,” a favorite theme of the Chinese leadership since 2003. BRI’s objectives are officially to “promote the economic prosperity of the countries along the Belt and Road, promote regional economic cooperation, strengthen exchanges and mutual learning between civilizations, and promote world peace and development.”
CENTRAL AND CENTRALIZED
BRI is highly centralized and coordinated from the top of the Chinese political leadership. The initiative was enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution during the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, and its corollary, “the community with a shared future for humanity,” was included in an amendment to the People’s Republic of China constitution in March 2018.
Two central ad hoc task forces were created in March 2015 under the State Council’s purview in order to supervise all BRI-related activities: the Leading Small Group on Advancing the Construction of the belt and road asean and its subsidiary, the Office of the Leading Small Group on Advancing the Construction of the Belt and Road, located within the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which manages the day-to-day central oversight and coordination work with relevant ministries and entities. The Belt and Road Promotion Center was established in 2017 within the NDRC’s office. It fulfils a strategic planning mission, which includes, among other tasks, the “analysis and assessment of relevant countries’ political and economic situations.”
Following the 13th National People’s Congress in March 2018, Vice Premier and Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng became chairman of the leading small group, while State Counselor and former minister of foreign affairs Yang Jiechi, Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, Secretary General of the State Council Xiao Jie, and NDRC Director He Lifeng assumed the responsibility of vice chairmen.
BRI leading small groups have also been created in relevant Chinese ministries and in each Chinese province. Similar to the central one, ministerial and provincial groups meet on a regular basis and include representatives from a variety of relevant government entities whose responsibilities pertain to the advancement of BRI.
At the top of the chain, Xi Jinping himself gives guidelines during regular study sessions specifically dedicated to BRI (such as the Politburo sessions on December 5, 2014, April 29, 2016, and September 27, 2016) or uses important events such as the Central Committee 5th Plenary Session (October 29, 2016) or the 19th Party Congress (October 18, 2017) to deliver important messages regarding the initiative. A compilation of 42 BRI-related speeches and public addresses by Xi was published by the Central Party Literature Press in December 2018.