Is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Truly Enhancing China’s Global Influence?

In recent times, concerns over China’s increasing global influence have been voiced by political leaders in democratic nations, including the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a 2022 speech, highlighted China’s extensive reach and ambitions, noting its efforts to reshape international institutions and arrangements established since World War II. Likewise, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull referred to China as the most active state and political party attempting to influence public affairs in Australia.

A significant component of China’s influence strategy revolves around substantial economic investments worldwide, notably through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Since its launch in 2013, the BRI has funded infrastructure projects in nearly 150 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, amounting to an estimated $1 trillion. While the BRI has undeniably expanded China’s trade, especially as domestic growth slows, the question remains: Does it truly enhance Beijing’s political influence?

Contrary to popular belief, our research indicates otherwise. The concept of “influence” must be clearly defined to measure it accurately. Misconceptions about influence can lead to misguided policy decisions. We propose that China aims to create alliances with actors within target countries, such as producers of raw materials that China consumes, who share some of its goals and advance its interests. This refined form of influence aligns more closely with the concerns of Western policymakers regarding Chinese investments.

Our research focuses on public statements made by politicians in three Southeast Asian countries—Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia—that are prime targets for Chinese influence due to their strategic importance. We find no evidence of BRI-related influence in their public discourse.

Measuring influence involves assessing how politicians’ statements about China align with Beijing’s interests. Politicians’ sentiments toward China can shape public opinion, affecting long-term relations and policy decisions. Tracking political sentiment on social media, a readily observable platform, allows us to gauge influence efforts.

While our approach doesn’t encompass all potential influence strategies, it provides valuable insights. The BRI has had mixed outcomes in terms of influence. On one hand, it has strengthened economic ties and boosted public support in some regions, like Africa. On the other hand, it has led to perceptions of corruption and debt distress in certain countries, causing negative political consequences.

Our research examined politicians’ responses to South China Sea disputes in Southeast Asian countries with and without direct BRI investments. Politicians’ public discourse, gathered from Twitter and Facebook activity over a 12-year period, revealed no consistent difference in sentiment between those representing BRI project regions and those without such projects.

There are several explanations for these results. Politicians in BRI regions may exercise caution in foreign-policy statements due to reliance on Chinese investments and concerns over Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions. China could also utilize other means of influence, like bribery.

Our study highlights the importance of examining Chinese influence at the sub-national level and understanding the role of local politics in foreign policy decisions. This nuanced perspective is crucial for nations seeking to compete with China effectively. Traditional measures of influence, often based on economic indicators, may not reflect the true extent of political influence.

In summary, the Belt and Road Initiative’s impact on political influence appears limited, with diverse outcomes in different regions. Understanding the dynamics of Chinese influence at the local level is vital for policymakers navigating the complex landscape of international relations in an era of growing global competition.

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