China’s Strategic Practices in the Belt and Road Initiative

Max Lesch (Zeppelin University) and Dylan M.H. Loh (Nanyang Technical University, Singapore)

The harbour of Duisburg, Germany is the final node of the ‘New Silk Road’ connecting Europe and China via direct railroad link. As part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), several infrastructure projects, including not only railroads but also harbours and roads, contribute to an emerging economic network spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa. Whereas China touts these projects as integrative and transparent endeavours towards peace and prosperity, politicians, observers, and researchers (mostly in the west) are cautious about the security implications of the BRI as part of Chinese hegemonic ambitions likely to disrupt the international order. This reflects the focus in security studies on the rise of China and its effects on international order. What is more, the literature frequently takes the strategic implications of China’s military activities in the Asian-Pacific region as its main empirical reference. In contrast, studying BRI projects as international (infrastructure) practices, allows us to shed light on their materiality and performative effects on international security politics (Bueger and Gadinger 2015).

In this article, we sketch how international practice theories can inform security studies and research on the BRI. By unpacking the ambiguity of BRI infrastructure practices in Asia and Europe, we demonstrate that, while China depicts railroad links as lifelines for economic development and harbours as hubs for mutually beneficial trade, critics see railroads as intrusions on national autonomy and harbours as toeholds for economic and military influence. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of BRI practices for the international order.

International practices, field-overlaps, and norms

International practices are situated in ‘fields’ – understood as relatively autonomous spaces wherein various actors compete and cooperate for incentives and resources (Bourdieu 1977). To name a few examples in the field of international security, this can include the practice of maintaining military bases abroad, peacekeeping missions, or performing military manoeuvres. These practices can be carried out more or less competently according to the norms that govern the particular field (Adler and Pouliot 2011). More often than not, actors enact these practices based on their tacit background knowledge. While this usually contributes to a reproduction of existing practices, norms, and orders, fields become unsettled when practices cut across several spaces. Scholars have shown, for instance, how Chinese diplomats’ sensibilities, personal histories, and the field of diplomacy in China predispose more assertive and strident diplomatic practices in the international arena (Loh 2020). In a similar vein, the effects of BRI practices cannot be fully grasped when analysed within an individual field and its norms. Drawing from Luc Boltanski’s (2011) notions of ‘orders of worth’, we argue that international actors – states, non- or sub-state actors – incite the contestation of the BRI by drawing on competing norms. In other words, what shapes the international dynamics of the BRI emerge from the active overlapping of fields.

Engaging with Bourdieu’s concept of field and Boltanski’s orders of worth, we argue first that clashing normative visions of the field (such as what counts as a ‘competent and viable’ infrastructural project) comes to the fore at the point of field overlaps. Second, we argue that multiple field-anchored norms come to bear when fields overlap and actors stabilise, modify, or disrupt the meaning of international practices. This lends agency to weaker actors and their potential to successfully challenge incumbents of a field (Evans and Kay 2008). Tying in with relational approaches in security studies to discursive formations of threats and danger (e.g., Campbell 1998), we zoom in on the materiality of international practices and how actors make sense of and contest international practices in overlapping fields. The politics of BRI practices epitomize the struggle about China’s position in the world and its effects on foreign and security policies that will shape international order.

In the next section, we map how BRI infrastructure practices – the construction of railroad links and the investments in deep-sea ports – play out in overlapping field dynamics before we turn to the implications for international order.

The contestation of Belt and Road infrastructure practices

Across the globe, China invests in deep-sea ports as part of the maritime links of the BRI. In the Indian Ocean, for instance, the Hambantota Port Project in Sri Lanka demonstrates how Chinese investments, including easily accessible loans and construction expertise from Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs), can become security issues, beyond their intended economic benefits. After Sri Lanka was unable to service its debt to China, the Sri Lankan ‘government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years’ to China in 2017 (Abi-Habib 2018). This transfer gave China a commercial, and possibly military, footprint in the Indian Ocean. It shows how loans dished out to struggling regimes can entrench patron-client relationships that build dependency and reliance. What has been promoted by China as an economic investment turned into a security issue with various international actors – for better or worse – using the Hambantota Port example as a cautionary tale. More recently, Portuguese officials have uttered similar concerns about Chinese moves in its strategically important deep-sea harbour of Sines. What began as a Chinese investment in one of the four terminals at Sines, has now triggered calls upon the United States to oppose Chinese moves at the port in order to counter the Chinese foray into Europe through its BRI practices.

In a similar vein, railroad links spanning the Eurasian continents have been met with ambiguous reactions. The case of Duisburg is illustrative for cities, regions, or states that struggle to adjust to socio-economic transformations and hope for economic renaissance based on closer ties to China under the BRI umbrella. At the same time, the perception of BRI infrastructure projects depends on the norms – orders of worth – used as metrics to evaluate them. Disputes thus come to the fore when domestic or regional actors challenge, redefine and recast the BRI’s economic prospects to a security or diplomatic issue, thereby unsettling BRI narratives and inviting greater scrutiny. For instance, a BRI project to build a 350-km, $2.89 billion rail link between Belgrade and Budapest, lauded as a hallmark project of the BRI, was investigated by EU officials to determine whether ‘it had violated European Union laws stipulating that public tenders must be offered for large transport projects’ (Kynge, Beesley, and Bryne 2017). Given the increasing promotion of the BRI by China, the EU took the step of declaring China a ‘systemic rival’ in 2019 (European Commission 2019: 1). In Southeast Asia, the contestation of BRI practices plays out even more dramatically in the case of the Malaysian East Coast Rail Link project. This project – a highlight of Malaysia–China ties and a flagship BRI project – was initiated by the Najib administration. After Najib’s electoral loss, the new Prime Minister – Mahathir Mohamad – quickly halted the project, citing unsustainable costs and worries over the true economic benefits. He further sounded a warning, in a state visit to China, against any ‘new form of colonialism’ through the dangling of huge economic projects (Hornby 2018). Tying in with the concern about Chinese investments in deep-sea ports discussed above, Malaysia also announced that it will scale down a deep-sea port worth US $7.5bn that is being built by CITIC Group of China, also as part of the BRI.

In sum, we see how BRI practices traverse (at least) an economic and military or security field in which differing norms (orders of worth) are used to assess each initiative and project by local actors. Where fields intersect, this does not only grant agency to recipient countries to challenge BRI practices. It has also triggered concerns within China that the SOEs responsible for the implementation of the BRI have behaved ‘recklessly and illegally overseas, with disastrous consequences for Chinese diplomacy’ (Jones and Zeng 2019: 1427). The BRI and its contestation, thus, intersects with the field of diplomacy in which some Chinese officials fear a weakening of their position vis-à-vis their counterparts from Europe and Asia.

Implications for international order

In this article, we highlighted the disputes and controversies generated from two sets of BRI practices – the construction of and investments in railroad links and harbours both, in Asia and Europe. This is not meant to provide a generalized argument about the BRI but rather, to provide some clues as to how the BRI is implemented and perceived by recipients. Our illustrations above show that when practices do not match rhetoric, or when they conflict with existing normative structures (orders worth raising project fairness, debt transparency, open bidding, awarding of contracts and so forth), this is likely to lead to criticism and disputes.

In Europe, the disruptive effects of BRI practices have become visible at the point of implementation. This disruption is manifested in the competing legal standards and practices of China and the EU. But disagreements over legality and transparency are not the only points of contention. The European concern for China’s human rights record, for instance, has potentially reached a tipping point between the European Union and China. Nevertheless, China’s courting of Europe has yielded some results. Italy, for example, embraced the BRI and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China on the initiative. Other countries such as Greece and Switzerland have positively affirmed the BRI. Yet as the above analysis has shown, countries supporting the BRI are not without agency. The example of Malaysia shows that signing on to the project does not preclude recipient states from (successfully) challenging BRI practices.

While the EU and Western countries couch their opposition to the BRI in terms of the normative and discursive lenses of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, we see other countries like Malaysia and Vietnam preferring terms like ‘non-interference’ or ‘new colonialism’ and invoking the sanctity of sovereignty. The Chinese lending policies in particular seem to put a growing strain on the range of action for recipient countries. The concerns about the Chinese role in Portuguese harbours, for instance, shows that in Europe, too, the BRI is increasingly viewed as a (regional) security issue. On the one hand, we see contestation of the BRI incited by their own operative rules and promises; as repeatedly stated by various state leaders, the infrastructural-economic aspects of the BRI are to be welcomed. On the other hand, many countries are concerned about the norms that the BRI brings with it as well as its security implications. As the BRI continues to evolve, so does its role in international ordering as a constant achievement of practice, including the construction of perceptions of China in that order.


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About the Authors

Max Lesch is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Chair of International Relations at Zeppelin University Friedrichshafen. Prior to this he was a Research Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt and at the Max Planck Institute on Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg. His research interests include contestation and deviance in world politics, international practice theories, law-making and fact-finding as well as human rights, torture and corruption. He tweets @maxlesch.


Dylan M.H. Loh is an assistant professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs programme at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His scholarship on China’s foreign policy, Southeast Asian regionalism and practice theory have been published in journals such as Cooperation and Conflict, Pacific Review, International Relations of Asia-Pacific, Australian Journal of International Affairs and International Studies Review among others. He tweets @dylanloh.