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China's Grandiose 'Belt and Road' Initiative Has Flopped

China's massive Belt and Road initiative cost a trillion dollars and failed to achieve any goals. Now, Xi Jinping is recasting it as "small and beautiful."



Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 18, 2023. (©Sputnik/Andrei Gordeev/Pool via REUTERS)

The Chinese government marked the tenth anniversary of its massive 'One Belt, One Road' (Belt and Road) infrastructure construction initiative at a major international conference in Beijing in mid-October. Beijing was seeking to underscore the success of the project. 

From the very start, though, the United States has been wary of the concept. It is seen as a strategy for the pursuit of Chinese hegemony. Now there seems to be a consensus that Beijing has failed to attain the goals it set for itself.


Beijng's 'Road to Ruin'

A long article in the September/October edition of the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine entitled China's Road to Ruin: The Real Toll of Beijing's Belt and Road sums up the views of US opinionmakers. It was co-authored by Michael Bennon and Francis Fukuyama, both researchers at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

Fukuyama is a political scientist who attracted global interest when he penned a book on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It was titled The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992). Bennon, meanwhile, is an economist and expert on international development. 

In the article, they note that China has invested a total of $1 trillion US dollars in more than 100 countries. Its projects are building some of the world's largest infrastructure. Yet, despite this, China has failed to achieve its intended goals of spreading Chinese power and influence and bringing economic growth benefits to both China and the recipient countries. 

The result is expanding debt on a global scale. This, they conclude, has only served to increase distrust and opposition to China. 

National leaders of several countries wave during a commemorative photo at the international conference on the Belt and Road initiative. October 18 (©Kyodo)

 Falling Into 'Debt Traps'

Sri Lanka, Argentina, Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Tanzania are identified in the article as some of the victim countries. Each one has fallen into a "debt trap" or defaulted on its debt as a result of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Unable to pay their debts to China, many of these countries have turned to special bailout funds. Those come from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As a result, the damage caused by Belt and Road has also come to affect mainstream international public development funds.

At the end of October, the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington DC-based think tank, issued a report on China's Belt and Road titled "CPEC at Ten: A Road to Nowhere?" In it, the author points out the "China-Pakistan Economic Corridor" concept, which has been pushed by the Chinese side. The project has even altered Pakistan's longstanding pro-China stance due to Pakistan's financial collapse and massive public protests.

The same report notes that this concept calls for a series of rail lines and high-speed highways to connect China's western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. However,  progress has been far from smooth. 


Chinese financing has been opaque by its nature. Furthermore, only Chinese companies have been used for the actual construction work. These are reportedly among the factors that have caused a backlash in Pakistan.

sri Lanka
Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka where management was turned over to China as a result of the large debt incurred from the project. (© Sankei by Hiroshi Mori)

Human Rights Concerns

On the US side, there is a widespread perception that China's choice of the Uyghur homeland as the starting point for the land-based half of the Belt and Road project has led to a major crackdown on the Uyghur ethnic group. 

A 2018 US Defense Department report on China's military capabilities also pointed to the military-strategic dangers posed by the Belt and Road. It warned, "Countries participating in BRI could develop economic dependence on Chinese capital, which China could leverage to achieve its interests." 

The report cited the example of the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. A Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) now controls that port through a 99-year lease.

Trying Out a 'Small and Beautiful' BRI

China specialist Eli Ratner now serves as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Biden Administration. He discussed the Belt and Road initiative in congressional testimony given in 2018. The true aim of the BRI, he stated, is for China to expand its own dictatorial system to the outside world and destroy the existing US-led international security regime.

Right now, though, the prevailing US view appears to be that China has not been able to achieve that goal. 

This conclusion is supported by the current weakening of the Chinese economy. It is also bolstered by President Xi Jinping's declaration of a fundamental change in approach. Xi declared that the future Belt and Road will be "small and beautiful."

Japan should be congratulating itself for declining to go down the BRI road. 


(Read the column in Japanese.)

Author: Yoshihisa Komori, The Sankei Shimbun

Yoshihisa Komori is the newspaper's Associate Correspondent in Washington DC.


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