Written by Christopher B. Primiano.

The Chinese government has framed its Belt and Road Initiative or BRI (previously known as One Belt, One Road) – a massive infrastructure project for Chinese trade routes by both land and sea, connecting China by railroad all the way to Western Europe and by the sea to countries in Asia, Africa, and ending in the Mediterranean – as a win-win for all. All countries involved will benefit from this massive trade route, according to the Chinese government.

…there is the potential for [the BRI] to fundamentally change international political economy in China’s favour.

But what if it does not benefit all?  What if the gains are fundamentally disproportionate?  What if, as the relative gains argument goes according to realist international relations scholars, states are more concerned about how they benefit in relation to another competing state than the overall benefit?

If both state and non-state actors in BRI countries view China as the main beneficiary of the BRI, then, according the relative gains argument, there is a strong chance of such states being discontented with the new China-created initiative. Indeed, there are many examples that demonstrate the discontent that people in the world, especially from developing countries, view various international institutions (e.g. the IMF and WTO) that are associated with advancing US or Western interests at the expense of countries that such institutions are claiming to help.  In turn, this then places pressure on government leaders in those countries.  With the rise of China, something similar could certainly occur due to its economic power.

There is no certain way of knowing how the BRI will turn out, as it is very early in the game.  Nonetheless, there is the potential for it to fundamentally change international political economy in China’s favour. There is also the chance that this will do damage to China on several fronts, with arguably the most significant consequence being the possibility that the loans for the massive infrastructure projects associated with the BRI are not repaid by BRI states.

In the 1990s, economic globalisation was often framed as a win-win for all.  Since then, however, things have changed, as the economic benefits of globalisation are not across the board. In numerous Western countries, the most obvious case being the United States, populist candidates have either come to power or came very close to power through free and fair elections in which such figures were able to tap into the discontent that is associated with various aspects of globalisation, usually economic globalisation.

If it turns out that the BRI is predominantly a system in which China’s benefits are massive and other countries are benefiting very little from this, then it is certainly likely that this will not be viewed by certain segments in various BRI countries as the win-win game that the Chinese government has depicted it as.  If China’s ascendancy continues and it is perceived as benefiting itself significantly more than BRI countries, state and non-state actors in BRI countries will most likely be able to tap into anti-China sentiment.

In short, the Chinese government needs to be careful about framing this project as a win-win for all involved.

Christopher B. Primiano is a Teaching Fellow in the School of International Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. Image Credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons