Dilemmas and challenges of the New Silk Road

Image: Cyrus Saurius


One cannot understand the current international situation without a thorough reflection on the nature of China's rise

The New Silk Road (or Belt and Road Initiative – BRI) was launched in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is, in our understanding, an ambitious process of Eurasian integration, centered on transport, communication and energy infrastructure.

With important precedents in the model of Sino-Angolan relations, the exchange based on the implementation of infrastructure works and the operationalization of the supply of natural resources served to emulate other cooperation mechanisms. The New Silk Road, in this sense, is the result of the maturation of cooperation projects brought about by the Chinese international insertion strategy - whose starting point permeates the execution capacity and investment in significant infrastructure works -, which acquires increasingly complex levels larger issues, covering issues of governance, sustainability and other areas of social development.

The new silk road, launched in 2013 by China, faces opposition from the United States, fearful of the loss of economic hegemony to the Asian giant.

Our central argument, in this sense, has been that the current implementation of the New Silk Road represents the regional stage of the Chinese globalization project, by recreating the sinocentric system. China has become the epicenter of the main regional economic flows, leading integration processes directed both to the Pacific, with ASEAN +3 and ASEAN +6, and to the Eurasian region, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO ).

Eurasian integration fulfills, at the same time, several national and international goals for China. First, by creating demand for the idle supercapacity of its domestic industry. Second, when interacting with issues related to food and energy security, as well as access to the natural resources needed to maintain the development project, with a view to creating alternatives to the so-called malacca dilemma – the eventual strangulation of supply routes by foreign control of the strait. Third, by contributing to boost the internationalization of its national companies and services, mainly engineering, while strengthening the country's presence in regional trade networks, expanding China's gravitational role.

Finally, by helping the political stabilization of the strategic environment that surrounds the national territory, while fostering China's condition as a regional financial epicenter and giving greater convertibility to the Renminbi (RMB).

It is clear, however, that this virtuous process of development and integration under the leadership of China, the New Silk Road, tends to face multiple challenges. After all, the world is going through a systemic transition full of contradictions, as the United States of America (USA), the superpower, faces difficulties in managing the hegemonic structures of power that they themselves created in the Post-War. In this way, the Sino-American rivalry appears as a central element of most of the current systemic contradictions. And so it is natural, therefore, that there are complex and diverse security challenges for the achievement of the New Silk Road. Firstly, they are composed of the foci of political destabilization and territorial fragmentation in countries and regions linked to it. Of these, stand out the separatist and terrorist movements that affect China itself, in Xinjiang, and Russia, in Chechnya; regions radiating transnational organized crime linked to drug and arms trafficking in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asian countries; and other zones comprising various territorial disputes, touching on issues such as the demarcation of borders in Central Asia.

In addition to fueling the aforementioned separatist movements, the US is carrying out a complex policy of containing China and, in effect, the Eurasian integration process under the leadership of Beijing. Worthy of note are Washington's recurrent movements in support of all independenceist political forces and arms sales to Taiwan; the promotion, from its allies, of disputes in the South China Sea [6], especially in the Spratly Islands; solidarity with Japan in disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands; and external support for separatist movements in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

The US presence in the Pacific Rim (see map) is complemented by a strong military presence in countries such as South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, in addition to the control of military bases in Guam and Hawaii, intensified with the announcement of the construction of a THAAD anti-missile shield on the Korean Peninsula – perceived by Beijing as a threat to its military deterrent capacity.

The modernization and expansion of Chinese naval and aerospace power calls into question the military hegemony of the United States in the seas of Asia.

Another complex issue running through the Chinese initiative concerns Sino-Indian relations. By establishing the maritime dimension of the New Silk Road, Beijing gives rise to the construction and modernization of the ports of Colombo and Hambantota, in Sri Lanka; Gwadar, Pakistan; Chittagong, Bangladesh; Meday Island, Myanmar; and Port Victoria, Seychelles. This infrastructure was called colar de perolas, and is perceived by India as a challenge to its regional hegemony. The Chinese pearl necklace therefore competes with the already established US and Indian presence in the region. On the one hand, India's interactions with the Chinese express cooperation, in dimensions such as sharing participation in the SCO, in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – where Indians hold the second largest contribution – and, albeit with disinterest, in the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM) of the New Silk Road. On the other hand, India develops its own initiatives, in addition to exhibiting notable discomfort with one of the axes of the New Silk Road: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which strengthens cooperation between historic rivals and with which it shares extensive borders, largely with limits still disputed and not fully demarcated. Indeed, the success of the New Silk Road inexorably depends on the consolidation of Chinese relations with this important neighbor and competitor of India, with its consequent diplomatic repercussions.

It is also worth mentioning the crucial challenge of the New Silk Road regarding its extension to the African continent [8]. In addition to being the main trading partner of virtually all countries on the continent, China created, in 2000, the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (FOCAC), which holds triennial meetings and holds robust Action Plans. The institutionalization of these relationships went hand in hand with the enhancement of several other initiatives. First, the expansion of international aid from China to Africa, with professional training, technical cooperation, humanitarian aid, etc. Second, the contribution to the development of infrastructure projects on the continent, with the construction of public buildings, energy production plants, roads, schools and agricultural development centers, hospitals, among others. Third, the application of robust Chinese direct investments has boosted Special Economic Zones and Free Trade Zones in several African countries, offsetting possible job losses resulting from the effects of increasing imports of Chinese industrialized products. Africa, therefore, represents a central element in the consolidation of a enlarged pearl necklace, as it connects Chinese ports to East Africa, especially the ports of Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan, boosting its presence in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa.

In short, the fact is that one cannot understand the current international situation without a thorough reflection on the nature of China's rise and its globalization project, initially centered on achieving this complex process of Eurasian integration. If, on the one hand, the progressive change in the global geoeconomic and geopolitical axis is clear, moving from the North Atlantic to the Pacific Basin, on the other hand, the costs, violence and time for the consolidation of these new power configurations still reserve many uncertainties.

*Diego Pautasso holds a doctorate in political science from UFRGS.

Originally published on the website Other words.



PAUTASSO, Diego. “The New Silk Road and its security challenges: the United States and the containment of the Sino-Russian axis”. International Studies, v.7, p.85 – 100, 2019.

_________________ “China's development and global power: the Made in China 2025 policy”. Southern: Brazilian Journal of Strategy & International Relations, v. 18, p. 183-198, 2019.

_________________“The role of Africa in the New Maritime Silk Road”. Brazilian Journal of African Studies, v.1, p.124 – 136, 2016.

PAUTASSO, Diego; DORIA, Gaio. “China and the disputes in the South Sea: intertwining the regional and global dimensions”. Journal of International Studies (KING), v. 8, no. 2, 2017.

PAUTASSO, Diego; UNGARETTI, Carlos. “The New Silk Road and the recreation of the Sinocentric system”. International Studies, v. 4, p. 25-44, 2017.



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