Belt & Road in Global Perspective
The Chinese flag waves against an open sky on a flagpole
Commentary / Analysis, Global governance, Conflict & security, East Asia, Belt & Road

The Belt and Road Initiative and China’s New International Order


espite the diversion represented by the war in Ukraine, the Biden Administration is trying to organize a coherent anti-Chinese counteroffensive based on the upgraded Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) inherited from the previous Administration. The failure of President Trump’s IPS and that of President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ had much to do with poor management (Tudoroiu 2021: 268). However, I argue that an element of a different nature further – and greatly – diminished their effectiveness: both chose the wrong adversary. Indeed, the IPS and the ‘pivot’ were mainly geostrategic enterprises targeting what can be called China the 19th century-style territorial empire: a state that aggressively projects its hard power on a regional scale, with targets that include the South China Sea and Taiwan. Yet, the China that actually challenges America’s global hegemony is different. It is a 21st-century deterritorialized and cooperative postmodern global power that is taking over the Global South through a projection of relationality-based normative power. As a concept, normative power represents the ‘ability to shape conceptions of normal’ in international affairs. This ‘is, ultimately, the greatest power of all’ (Manners 2002: 240, 253), which certain foreign policy actors are able to use to ‘shap[e], instill, diffus[e] – and thus “normalis[e]” – rules and values in international affairs through noncoercive means’’ (Tocci 2007: 1). China’s specific type of normative power is characterized by the centrality of relationality (guanxi): an emphasis on ‘the dynamic processes of connections and transactions among actors in structured social relationships, as opposed to their substances and attributes’ (Zhang 2015: 5). The goal of social actions is the formation of social ties, not the satisfaction of utilities. Establishing good relationships is preferred to short-term material gains, a strategy best illustrated by the Chinese ‘win-win’ cooperative approach (Ibid., 21-25; Kavalski 2014: 313). Accordingly, in much of the Global South, China the postmodern global power is often perceived as a peaceful provider of affordable goods, hardworking entrepreneurial migrants, and benevolent ‘win-win’ projects (Lahtinen 2018: 47). Yet, under President Xi, this friendly China has adopted a grand strategy that makes use of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to construct a new, Chinese-led international order. It goes without saying that this counterhegemonic geopolitical endeavor is much more threatening to the United States than the geostrategic actorness of China the territorial empire, which is mainly limited to military actions in China’s maritime vicinity.

The dual identity of a state that is simultaneously a cooperative postmodern global power and an aggressive territorial empire might be puzzling but is in no way extraordinary. To quote Alexander Wendt, identity ‘can take multiple forms simultaneously within the same actor; (...) most identities are activated selectively depending on the situations in which [the actors find themselves]’ (Wendt 1999/2003: 230). Many states behave differently in different contexts. The Chinese case is rather extreme due to the different conditions at the origin of its two identities. The territorial empire was forged under Mao Zedong during the Cold War, which followed the even more turbulent ‘century of humiliation’ when the Middle Kingdom became a semicolony of Western powers and Japan.  The postmodern global power emerged under Deng Xiaoping and developed in a cooperative context strongly marked by the highly beneficial Chinese participation in the Western-centered globalization ‘from above.’

Similar to China’s domestic evolution, the new international identity represents a new layer added to the previous one without totally replacing it. Importantly, the two identities are different but not incompatible. On the contrary, as explained below, a ‘division of labor’ exists between the postmodern global power, which constructs the Chinese-led international order, and the territorial empire whose mission is to defend China’s territory, ‘sea lifelines,’ and international order from the incumbent hegemon’s possible aggression.  To achieve their respective objectives, both Chinas use the Belt and Road Initiative.

The aforementioned highly ambitious grand strategy originates in two developments that took place in the 2000s. On the material side, China’s economy quadrupled between 2001 and 2012 (Brown 2018: 213). On the ideational side, the 2008 financial crisis led to a cognitive turn among the political elites in Beijing: they acquired the conviction that the West is irreversibly declining (Tang 2018: 35; Wu 2018: 1003). When the highly narcissistic Vice-President Xi Jinping (Tudoroiu 2021: 35) came to power in November 2012, he took advantage of increased capabilities and ideational change to launch a geopolitical enterprise that would allow him to remain in history. Setting up the new grand strategy took some time. In addition, the leadership in Beijing has little reason to make it public. It was only in 2017 that President Xi started to speak about ‘great changes unseen in a century’ and in January 2021 that he stated ‘time and momentum are on our side’ (Doshi 2021: 2). By then, his grand strategy had already reached significant results.

This strategy is complex, sophisticated, and highly effective. It has a regional component, which aims to construct a Chinese-centered ‘community of shared destiny’ in Asia; and a global one, which relies on a ‘double game.’ On the one hand, China continues its pre-Xi efforts to reform the multilateral institutions of the American-led international order to its own advantage. On the other hand, and much more successfully, it creates a network of parallel multilateral institutions that construct its own international order (Vangeli 2018: 64). By far, the most important such institution is the Belt and Road Initiative, which projects the relationality-based normative power of China the postmodern global power in the Global South.

This geographical orientation is due to two factors: the ‘periphery policy’ adopted by President Xi in 2013 to avoid a conflict with the United States in the Western Pacific due to both military inferiority and a relationality-based preference for cooperative approaches; and the existence in the Global South of specific political, economic, and social conditions that prominently include the need for infrastructure projects, lower democracy scores, and weaker governance structures. The latter are critical because China’s projection of normative power takes the form of the Chinese socialization of political elites in power in the BRI partner states.

Processes of normative suasion and cognitive role playing are used which are respectively based on micro-processes of persuasion and role playing/mimicking (Park 2014: 338; Johnston 2001: 499; Johnston 2003: 113-115; Johnston 2008: 24-25; Flockhart 2006: 97; Beyers 2010: 911; Acharya 2011: 2; Simmons 2013: 371). Their remarkable success is due to material incentives represented by a large number of prestige infrastructure projects that benefit the political elites individually and as a group because they are calculated to increase their political legitimacy and electoral support. To limit costs and efforts, China often seeks only Jeffrey Checkel’s role playin g, Type I socialization (Checkel 2005: 804). Its norms are not fully internalized, but the socialized elites learn to play a role that makes them act as if they had internalized the Chinese normative set. These elites accordingly change their geopolitical preferences, align their states’ foreign policy with Beijing’s interests, and join the emerging Chinese-led international order (Tudoroiu 2021). This process is greatly enhanced by the reliance of the Belt and Road Initiative on relationality (guanxi), which gives priority to relationships over short-term material gains.

Ultimately, the construction of the new Chinese-led order mainly relies on establishing close partnerships with the Global South political elites in power. Clearly, exploitative patterns of interaction exist, which structure the BRI and the new order as a center-periphery system. But China’s relationality does lead  to  a degree of cooperation and benevolence largely superior to those of previous counterhegemonic powers such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It should be added that the construction of the new Chinese order is enhanced by the virtuous circle formed by the Chinese-centered globalizations ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ that are the result of the same BRI-mediated projection of normative power (Tudoroiu 2022).

China the territorial empire also relies on the Belt and Road Initiative to construct security partnerships, create ‘corridors’ that represent partly or fully continental alternatives to China’s current ‘sea lifelines’ such as that through the Malacca Strait, build civil-military dual use ports that the People’s Liberation Army Navy may use in the future, and increase its intelligence capabilities. At present, these tasks are of marginal importance. However, this will fundamentally change if the US counteroffensive results in a new cold war. If this unfortunate but likely scenario does materialize and the international system becomes bipolar once more (Mearsheimer 2019: 44), China’s liberal but authoritarian international order will predictably make extended use of the newly created Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative. Yet, at least in the first stages, it will continue to rely on and overlap with the geographical extension of the Belt and Road Initiative. Its contribution to the socialization of political elites in partner states represents the engine of China’s global enterprise and cannot be easily replaced with other geopolitical approaches or instruments.

Acharya, Amitav (2011) Asian Regional Institutions and the Possibilities for Socializing the Behavior of States, ADB Working Paper Series on Regional Economic Integration No. 82, Asian Development Bank,

Beyers, Jan (2010) ‘Conceptual and Methodological Challenges in the Study of European Socialization,’ Journal of European Public Policy, 17(6), pp. 909-920.

Brown, Kerry (2018) ‘The Belt and Road: Security Dimensions,’ Asia Europe Journal, 16(3), pp. 213-222.

Checkel, Jeffrey T. (2005) ‘International Institutions and Socialization in Europe: Introduction and Framework,’ International Organization, 59(4), pp. 801-826.

Doshi, Rush (2021) The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Flockhart, Trine (2006) ‘“Complex Socialization”: A Framework for the Study of State Socialization,’ European Journal of International Relations, 12(1), pp. 89-118.

Johnston, Alastair Iain (2001) ‘Treating International Institutions as Social Environments,’ International Studies Quarterly, 45(4), pp. 487-515.

Johnston, Alastair Iain (2003) ‘Socialization in International Institutions: The ASEAN Way and International Relations Theory,’ in G. John Ikenberry and Michael Mastanduno (eds.), International Relations Theory and the Asia-Pacific, New York; Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, pp. 107-162.

Johnston, Alastair Iain (2008) Social States: China in International Institutions, 1980-2000. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kavalski, Emilian (2014) ‘The Shadows of Normative Power in Asia: Framing the International Agency of China, India, and Japan,’ Pacific Focus, 29(3), pp. 303-328.

Manners, Ian (2002) ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?,’ Journal of Common Market Studies, 40(2), pp. 235-258.

Mearsheimer, John (2019) ‘Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order,’ International Security, 43(4), pp. 7-50.

Park, Susan (2014) ‘Socialisation and the Liberal Order,’ International Politics, 51(3), pp. 334-349.

Simmons, Beth A. (2013) ‘International Law,’ in Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse, and Beth A. Simmons (eds.) Handbook of International Relations, Second Edition, London: SAGE Publications, pp. 352-378.

Tang, Shiping (2018) ‘China and the Future International Order(s),’ Ethics & International Affairs, 32(1), pp. 31-43.

Tocci, Nathalie (2007) ‘Profiling Normative Foreign Policy: The European Union and Its Global Partners,’ CEPS Working Document No. 279, December, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels,

Tudoroiu, Theodor (2022) China’s Globalization from Below: Chinese Entrepreneurial Migrants and the Belt and Road Initiative, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Tudoroiu, Theodor, with Amanda R. Ramlogan (2021) China’s International Socialization of Political Elites in the Belt and Road Initiative, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Vangeli, Anastas (2018) ‘The Normative Foundations of the Belt and Road Initiative,’ in Wenhua Shan, Kimmo Nuotio, and Kangle Zhang (eds.) Normative Readings of the Belt and Road Initiative: Road to New Paradigms, Cham, Switzerland: Springer, pp. 59-83.

Wendt, Alexander (1999/2003) Social Theory of International Politics, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wu, Xinbo (2018) ‘China in Search of a Liberal Partnership International Order,’ International Affairs, 94(5), pp. 995-1018.

Zhang, Feng (2015) Chinese Hegemony: Grand Strategy and International Institutions in East Asian History, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.