III Opportunities for peace

How to understand the peacebuilding potential of the Belt and Road Initiative

Dongyan Li


In his keynote speech at the Belt and Road International Forum in May 2017, President Xi Jinping proposed to build the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into a “road for peace”. The World Bank and the United Nations also put forward a joint report on the Pathways for Peace in 2018, and emphasized that violence and conflict are big obstacles to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Their report argues that conflict prevention is a decisive factor for development and economic cooperation, and indeed central to reducing poverty and achieving shared prosperity (World Bank and United Nations). This report reflects an increasing trend to strengthen the interaction between the peace and development agendas, and to promote cooperation between both sets of actors.

In this context, this chapter explores the peacebuilding potential of BRI and how to understand the possible connection between BRI and UN peacebuilding. BRI has peacebuilding potential in many aspects, but these potentials are limited at the current stage and uncertain in the future. International efforts are a necessary condition for promoting BRI to contribute more to peacebuilding. The chapter consists of three main sections. First, it explains the core of BRI, which is an economic cooperation-focused initiative, not a peacebuilding initiative; second, it interprets the peace connection and peacebuilding potential of BRI; third, it analyzes the limitations and uncertainties of the peacebuilding potential of BRI, and tries to predict the possible scenarios.

The Belt and Road: an economic cooperation initiative

There are different interpretations and expectations for BRI both internationally and domestically. In China, the mainstream view suggests that BRI should be an economic cooperation initiative, because economic cooperation is easier to carry out. If BRI involves security and peace issues, it will potentially become more complicated or sensitive. BRI is the abbreviation of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”. Considering that the countries along the “Belt and Road” have different resources and strong economic complementarity, there is great potential for economic cooperation. The main contents of BRI are the connectivity in five areas: policy, infrastructure, trade, finance, and people-to-people relations. In the five areas, infrastructure is emphasized first, including investment in factories, roads, bridges, ports, airports, and power grids, as well as communication networks and oil and gas pipeline networks. It is very clear that economic cooperation is the core content of the Belt and Road (Vision and Actions).

The mainstream view in China believes that China’s advantage lies in economic and development cooperation, so BRI should focus on cooperation in both the economic and development fields:

The Belt and Road Initiative is an economic behavior, and it is a platform for economic cooperation. It does not involve politics, security, and other fields. Such a choice may help eliminate the external worries about the expansion of China’s political and military power and will be beneficial to international co-operation and strategic mutual trust.

(Li Ziguo “Belt and Road Initiative”)

According to the official documents, BRI will be promoted by bilateral or multilateral economic cooperation, with special emphasis on the role of both international and domestic markets. In May 2017, the Joint Communique of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation put forward the basic principles of the Belt and Road, and one of the principles is “market-led behavior”, that is “recognizing the role of the market and that of business as key players, while ensuring that the government performs its proper role and highlighting the importance of open, transparent, and non-discriminatory procurement procedures” (“Joint Communique”).

The Communique emphasized the need to fully understand the role of the market and the status of enterprise as the main body of BRI. This means that the driving force of BRI is not government, but enterprise, and the role of the government is to build the platform for enterprise to flourish. Therefore, the mainstream view sees BRI as separate from peace and security cooperation initiatives, as BRI is a series of

Peacebuilding and the BRI 103 market-led economic cooperation projects, themselves distinct from China’s foreign aid projects.

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