By Xinyi Yang & David A. Parker
The “One Belt, One Road” (1BR) has quickly emerged as Chinese president Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy concept. An expansive effort anchored in planned infrastructure projects stretching across the Eurasian continent and even into Africa, the strategy’s scope and ambition has earned it comparisons to the Marshall Plan. However, implementing such a grand and complicated vision, potentially involving the coordination of trillions of dollars in investment across dozens of countries, will be a major challenge. As is often the case in Chinese policymaking, the “Belt and Road” remains more of a “vision statement with a to-do list” than a hard-and-fast blueprint. Hence, Beijing’s implementation strategy bears close watching.
Since aspects of the 1BR were first announced in late 2013, it has received an enormous amount of top-level attention, including being featured as the central topic of discussion at a November 2014 meeting of the top-level Central Economic and Finance Leading Small Group (CFELSG) chaired by Xi Jinping. He has since referenced it in numerous public speeches, including a major address at the March 2015 Boao Forum. This was followed by the release of a new Belt and Road action plan by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) on March 28. The concept has also received increasing attention in the past two government work reports and the last two Central Economic Work Conferences.
More recently, the leadership established a new “Advancing the Development of the One Belt and One Road Leading Group” (LG) in February 2015. This group will be vital to overseeing and coordinating implementation of the 1BR strategy over the coming years. Hence, its composition, first revealed in early April, provides useful insight into the leadership’s thinking. Chairing the group is first-ranked Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, a member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee who holds primary responsibility for finance, reform and development, and the environment. The group also has four vice-chairmen: third-ranked Vice Premier Wang Yang, responsible for agriculture, trade, tourism policy, and the economic track of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED); Wang Huning, head of the Central Committee Policy Research Center, a key policy advisor to President Xi, and the head of the office of the Comprehensively Deepening Reform Leading Small Group (CDRLSG); Yang Jiechi, a state councilor and career diplomat, who chairs the strategic side of the S&ED; and Yang Jing, who serves in a vital coordinating function as both the secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee Secretariat and secretary-general of the State Council. Jing and the other vice-chairmen will likely play an important role in coordinating China’s fractious policymaking apparatus.
The inclusion of both officials with responsibility for economic issues and those holding aspects of the foreign policy portfolio is consistent with the dual purpose of the 1BR strategy, which is designed to stimulate and better integrate China’s domestic economy as well as enhance Beijing’s influence abroad. Meanwhile, the high level of the leaders and their direct access to President Xi will be vital to driving implementation forward. Three members of the 1BR LG’s leadership – Zhang Gaoli, Wang Huning, and Wang Yang – are not only Politburo-ranked, but are members of what is effectively “mission control” for China’s overall reform process: the CFELSG and the CDRLSG, both chaired by Xi Jinping.
Beneath the leadership level, a coordinating office for the 1BR LG has been established within the NDRC, which is the lead agency for implementing the 1BR. The agencies co-leading with the NDRC are the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – reflecting again the 1BR’s domestic and international aspects. According to the NDRC website, second-ranked NDRC Deputy Director He Lifeng and tenth-ranked Wang Xiaotao will be the officials with primary responsibility for driving the 1BR from the NDRC. They will undoubtedly have their hands full, given that the action plan released in late March makes specific reference to 18 provinces involved in the effort (some of which have already established their own leading groups), encompasses eight separate international economic corridors including the much-touted China–Pakistan economic corridor, and has now been expanded beyond infrastructure construction to include financial integration, enhanced people-to-people ties among 1BR countries, and more, including the little-understood “Information Silk Road.”
It remains to be seen how effective the 1BR will be in achieving its various objectives: as a tool for domestic economic stimulus; as a means of distributing patronage to vested interests; as a framing for China’s enhanced economic diplomacy abroad; and as an effort to more deeply entrench a Sino-centric economic geography across Eurasia. However, the implementing structure outlined above makes clear that Beijing is gearing up for a major push before the next leadership transition in 2017. Observers should also expect the 1BR to feature prominently in the 13th Five-Year Plan, which will run from 2016 to 2020 and will likely include further details on the new strategy.