Chinese President Xi Jinping is a man in a rush to build a legacy. In 2013, only four months into his presidency, Xi launched the One Belt One Road initiative, billed as the largest international development scheme in history. The “New Silk Road Economic Belt” promises to connect Europe and Asia overland through a large network of highways, railways, pipelines, trade corridors, and digital infrastructure. The “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” will build up a string of industrial port cities tracing the coastline of the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and Suez Canal all the way to the Mediterranean.
The scope of the plan is mind-boggling, but the details are hazy. Neither the belt nor the road is an actual route connecting hub cities, as the Chinese government’s official maps depict them. Any country can join the initiative, but membership carries no concrete commitments. Some observers call One Belt One Road—OBOR—a “Chinese Marshall Plan.” Others have argued it will mark the “dawn of Eurasia” and profoundly reshape global politics. The Trump administration calls OBOR “debt-trap diplomacy”—a predatory scheme to get poor countries hooked on Chinese loans.
My research, based on hundreds of interviews on four continents and primary documents in five languages, has found that the conventional wisdom about OBOR is largely wrong. Prominent news outlets have variously described OBOR as a “$1 trillion plan,” a “$5 trillion plan,” and an “$8 trillion plan” even though no authoritative Chinese document backs up any of these figures. Contrary to much reporting, the Chinese government does not centrally administer OBOR as an economic or investment policy. Nor does it treat OBOR as a carefully calibrated or systematic “grand strategy.” Many OBOR projects are wasteful and most are executed with minimal oversight from Beijing.