From building strategic seaports in Pakistan to connecting railways across Central Asia, perhaps no foreign-policy topic has received more attention in recent years than China's global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
But for all the bold headlines and focus from policymakers around the world, the BRI's internal machinery and how its many infrastructure deals, pipelines, railways, and roads stretching across Eurasia and Africa actually work remains poorly understood.
Pulling back the curtain on the opaque levers of China's premier foreign-policy initiative is the focus of the book The Emperor’s New Road: China And The Project Of The Century released on September 29 by Jonathan Hillman, an American analyst who serves as the director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C.-based think tank.
In doing so, Hillman provides a fresh and nuanced perspective on Chinese power as it really is and presents a detailed look at the BRI that doesn't fit neatly into any of the project's prepackaged narratives, whether it be the official version of "win-win" engagement promoted by Beijing or the idea pushed by China's critics that the BRI is a political backdoor aimed at controlling developing countries.
"Some of China's activities are alarming and a cause for concern, but I don't think that's the same thing as BRI being this perfectly coordinated, uber-centralized thing," Hillman told RFE/RL in an interview. "China doesn't have the management structure in place to properly coordinate this expansive project."
Hillman paints a complicated picture that is not flattering to Chinese foreign-policy makers, revealing the estimated $1 trillion project to be more of a loose collection of poorly coordinated initiatives than an actual grand strategy.
While the BRI is a mix of development, trade, and geopolitics that is central to Beijing's rise as a global power, Hillman's portrait focuses on the mismanaged borders that hold up trade, the poorer countries desperate to accept any kind of investment, and the local governments that are harnessing Chinese mega-projects for their own political and financial ends.
The Emperor's New Road is a story of whether the BRI is actually advancing China's global ambitions, told through interviews with Chinese officials, detailed analysis and research, and on-the-ground reporting in Central Asia, Russia, and elsewhere. In the process, it is not only China using the BRI to influence and gain benefit from its neighbors, but also its neighbors using the BRI for influence with and benefit from China.
"China faces a different world today compared to what past imperial powers faced. Beijing is kind of a vampire at the door, it needs to be welcomed in," Hillman said. "This allows participating countries to decide which projects to accept and they go into them with very varying levels of experience and capacity, which leads to all kinds of different results."
Central to Hillman's work is telling the story of China's rise as a great power on the world stage and the growing pains that Beijing has faced since it launched the early component of the BRI.
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping chose the Kazakh capital, Astana (since renamed Nur-Sultan), to unveil the Silk Road Economic Belt, the overland component of what would later coalesce into the BRI.
Since then, the Chinese project has become the cornerstone of Xi Jinping's foreign policy, with Beijing labeling it "the project of the century."
In the process, China has sunk hundreds of billions of dollars into ports, railways, and energy projects across Asia, Africa, and Europe to become Central Asia's top investor and the African continent's premier economic force. The goal has been not only to expand infrastructure, but also to win over local governments by funneling investment, jobs, and economic growth in their direction.
But the BRI has also been undercut in recent years with questions regarding the commercial value of many of its projects and concerns over the initiative being a vehicle for Chinese control.
Hillman puts China alongside imperial powers that sought to use trade to further their own geopolitical ambitions, especially drawing parallels with the British Empire, whose own rise was linked to building and controlling shipping and rail links.
But Hillman is quick to note in his analysis that Beijing has often been its own worst enemy when it comes to trying to expand its influence through BRI by engaging in obtuse agreements with governments that have sparked domestic backlash, offering no official description for what qualifies as a BRI project, and relying on hard-to-complete infrastructure deals.
"Despite these imperial echoes, this is not a story about China's domination but its education as a rising power," Hillman writes in his book. "China's tool of choice, infrastructure, is appealing to developing countries but incredibly difficult to deliver."
No End In Sight
Part of this education has been coming to terms with Beijing's inexperience as a global power and how the BRI has become "a middleman's dream," with large-scale infrastructure projects -- often carried out with little transparency and accountability -- offering a wide array of opportunities for corruption.
"Infrastructure is not exactly the most effective tool to build influence," Hillman told RFE/RL. "Building big projects that are more expensive than planned and take longer than expected is not how you gain credibility."
Despite these shortcomings, the BRI and China's path forward have managed to progress.
Hillman partially attributes this to the ambiguity of the BRI, which has allowed local governments and leaders to make it suit their own interests. For former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Hillman said embracing the BRI and the Khorgos "dry port" was "poor economics but savvy politics," allowing the Kazakh leader to develop deeper ties with Beijing and gain greater leverage in balancing its relationship with Moscow.
Likewise, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an estimated $62 billion bundle of projects that forms Beijing's BRI presence in the country, has become a favorite of the Pakistani military, allowing it to increase its already formidable sway and use China's expanded economic footprint as a signal of support against India, a chief rival.
But even as China is adapting to how the BRI has mutated over the years, its core problems remain.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the economic problems facing many projects, with a June survey by the Chinese Foreign Ministry finding that 20 percent of BRI projects had been "seriously affected" by the pandemic, with a further 30 to 40 percent "somewhat affected."
Similarly, China's mass internment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang Province has strained relations with the West and hurt its credibility among populations in the Muslim world, especially across Central Asia.
Despite the BRI's many failings, the initiative still remains an attractive vision for much of the developing world and its attachment to Xi means that it will continue to be at the forefront of Chinese foreign policy.
"The need for infrastructure remains so great," Hillman said. "Countries are still eager to see what they can get out of this."