Conceptualizing the Belt and Road Initiative as an International Regime
Photo Credit: Financial Times
By Peter Kien-hong Yu

Conceptualizing the Belt and Road Initiative as an International Regime

Apr. 11, 2017  |     |  0 comments

The Belt and Road Initiative refers to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s proposal to build a Silk Road Economic Belt and a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (hereinafter referred to as the Belt and Road). During his visits to Central and Southeast Asia in September and October 2013, PRC President Xi Jinping unveiled the initiatives of building the Belt and Road in cooperation with, by now, 70 countries, and laid out policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people bonds as the five major goals.


Tons of publications regarding the initiatives have been published at home and abroad since September 2013. Starting from March 21, 2017, we can also browse the Belt and Road Portal.


It is highly suggested that the portal be restructured in terms of the international regimes and non-international regimes dimensions. This is because, for those who already have a firm grasp of international regimes, they can know right away that, if the Belt and Road regime can be maintained and sustained, all the people in the world can be benefited. Yes, all, be it an individual, a country, or an international organization. Hence, they will whole-heartedly applaud and support the regime. Besides, it is not possible for us, including those in the design team, to remember all the words and deeds of the initiatives that have been publicized and revised in the portal since the first day and beyond.


In this essay, I will attempt to piece together all the information, data, and analysis in the portal and other important sources and slot them into the following framework, which must be understood holistically:


The Belt and Road regime,

Mechanism(s), and



This is how I define the term, international regimes: A set (or sets) of at least 15 core elements/features/criteria (including those four as mentioned by Steven D. Krasner) in the contexts of (fragmented) issue-area, (fragmented) issue-areas, and issue-regimes.


Mechanism can be subdivided into device(s) and institution(s). Synonyms for device include apparatus, instrument, and tool. The term, institution, can be further subdivided into practice and (bilateral or multilateral) organizations. Synonyms for practice include action, application, and custom in general and the 15 core elements in particular, as shown in the chart below.


As to organization, examples are joint committee, mixed committee, coordinating committee, steering committee and management committee to coordinate and promote the implementation of cooperation projects plus Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China (10+1), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Asia-Europe Meeting, Asia Cooperation Dialogue, Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, China-Gulf Cooperation Council Strategic Dialogue, Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation, and Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation. Needless to say, we should foremost bear in mind the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which opened its doors in January 2016 and aims to assist regional neighbors in infrastructure development, such as airports, communication networks, logistics hubs, modern highways, ports, and railway lines, plus a military component that allows for a rapid response to a crisis.


It is not difficult to pinpoint some devices: cross-border optical cables and other communications trunk line networks, Information Silk Road, transcontinental submarine optical cables, spatial (satellite) information passageways (Beidou Satellite Navigation System), etc.


To monitor whether the Belt and Road regime is working well, one must test all the 15 components, as opposed to Steven D. Krasner’s Principles, Norms, Rules, and Decision-making Procedures (see Figure 1), at all times.

Figure 1.

We can discuss several of them, for illustrative purposes:


I.                    Positive nature:


China-British Business Council in September 2015 released a report identifying the following industries which stand to benefit: Infrastructure; Financial and Professional Services; Advanced Manufacturing and Transport; Agriculture; Energy and Resources; E-Commerce and Logistics; as well as Healthcare and Life Sciences.


II.                 Principles:


The Belt and Road Initiative is in line with the… principles of the United Nations (UN) Charter.


The Initiative is open for cooperation… to all countries, plus international and regional organizations.


The Initiative is harmonious and inclusive.


The Initiative follows market operation.


III.               Pan-:


Projects are implemented here and there.


IV.               One for all, all for one:


Color of skin, culture, democracy, religion, etc. do not matter, or are placed at secondary positions of importance.


V.                 Cooperation (in key areas of):


Policy coordination,

facilities connectivity,

unimpeded trade,

financial integration, and

people-to-people bonds.


VI.               Transparency:


The Portal provides a lot of relevant information and data. It also has a section devoted to observations by academics and experts.


Measures are the outcomes of organizations’ meetings. Both mechanisms and measures are needed, so as to shore up each specific regime at the international level.


In this essay, I have not discussed the non-international regimes dimension of the Belt and Road Initiative. Under this dimension, the AIIB can be easily construed by some observers as a direct challenge to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank. Indeed, mainland China wants to show to the world that its style of operating the AIIB from the bottom-up will be very different from those top-down, capitalist-oriented financial institutions. However, it is not easy to integrate the development strategies of the countries along the Belt and Road. A lot of meetings must be held. This process will certainly take a long period of time to synthesize the strategies into a coherent one. Hence, we will often see that the Belt and Road regime will have to return to square one, waiting to be formed again.


If the initiative can be successful, the PRC can become an undisputed regime hegemon in the region, and all the parties will fully understand that all of them can benefit in the long run. Hence, it is the choice of readers to side with the international regimes or non-international regimes dimensions of the Belt and Road Initiative.


Several reminders are in order, however. First, the regional Belt and Road experience must be shared with other places in the world, broadly defined. Otherwise, we cannot call the initiative a 100 percent regime. Second, the Belt and Road regime does not apply to each area all the time, because, if we do not see, for example, people in a certain area facing a regime-related issue, the Belt and Road regime will not flash in our minds and hearts, since such a specific regime is not necessary. Third, many documents will be signed. It is suggested that each document be divided into two dimensions, that is, international and non-international regimes, so that each member state or economies can know right away what is beneficial to all and what is to some members at certain time/space sequence. Fourth, in an important official document of the PRC related to Belt and Road, we do see the term “global free trade regime.” However, the Chinese term “全球自由贸易体系” (quanqiu ziyou maoyi tixi) is misleading, because each regime comes and goes and, therefore, as mentioned in the second point, when there is nobody living in a certain area, unless we are talking about cyber space, we do not need international regimes. Last but not least, the UN has six official languages. The non-Chinese versions of the online Belt and Road Portal should be uploaded as soon as possible, so as to be more transparent.


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