Unlocking the Gates of Eurasia: China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Its Implications for US Grand Strategy

By Thomas Cavanna
The full article was published in Texas National Security Review

The Belt and Road Initiative, an unprecedented infrastructure program that extends across and beyond the Eurasian continent, has elicited increasingly hostile reactions in the West and come to symbolize US leaders’ disillusionment regarding Beijing’s growing assertiveness and authoritarianism under Xi Jinping. Many observers view the Chinese initiative as a threat. At the same time, most experts contend that its prospects of success are slim. However, Belt and Road’s contours are still unclear and the subject of intense debates.

In this article, I engage this conversation and argue that, for all its flaws, the Belt and Road Initiative is much more coherent and resilient than many believe. First, it leverages China’s unique geoeconomic assets, such as state control over national actors, a vast national market, and growth rates superior to those of most countries, to circumvent Washington’s military primacy. Second, Belt and Road works in tandem with Beijing’s industrial modernization, defense buildup, omni-directional engagement, and sophisticated propaganda, thereby transcending the U.S. military-centric approach. Third, the initiative advances a hybrid cross-regional geostrategy that yields powerful sea-land synergies, in contrast with America’s more circumscribed vision. Finally, China’s initiative exploits Washington’s post-Cold War overreach — militarization, political interferences, neoliberalism — and the strains in its alliance network. Left unchecked, Belt and Road could erode America’s post-World War II hegemony. However, it also offers opportunities that could be leveraged to advance some U.S. interests.

This article makes two contributions to the literature. First, and most important, its multidisciplinary and comprehensive approach helps capture Belt and Road’s mutually reinforcing foundations. Excellent studies have addressed the genesis and contours of China’s initiative in general terms or have explored its implementation in specific domains (e.g., finance and technology), geographic areas (e.g., Pakistan and Southeast Asia), or projects, like Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. However, investigating its historical and cultural roots, multidimensional nature, synergy with other Chinese policies, and geostrategic manifestations altogether against the backdrop of America’s hegemony helps uncover why Beijing’s endeavor is more coherent, potent, and sustainable than many believe.

Second, the article stresses the role of geoeconomics in grand strategy. Leading scholars have shown how economic assets can elevate a state’s international position. However, for most experts, grand strategy relies almost exclusively on military instruments. This analysis builds on their vital contributions but it reintroduces geoeconomics into the picture and stresses the mutual synergies between economic and military power.

The article proceeds in three sections. First, it outlines Belt and Road’s progress, its position within China’s grand strategy and strategic culture, and its resilience. Second, it explores how Belt and Road helps protect the foundations of Beijing’s power: domestic security, economic security, and industrial-military potential. Third, it investigates how the initiative allows China to project influence abroad at the systemic, regional, and bilateral levels. In each section, the article also discusses the impact of Beijing’s ambitions on the interdependent levers of influence — military, economic, diplomatic, and geostrategic — that have underpinned America’s post-World War II hegemony. It concludes with policy recommendations for U.S. leaders.

Thomas Cavanna is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School (Center for Strategic Studies). He is writing a book on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and US Grand Strategy. He also teaches a course on “Grand Strategies in History: from the Ancient Greek City-States to America’s 21st Century Hegemony”. 

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