Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one of the most ambitious infrastructure and investment initiatives ever conceived. The vast collection of development and investment projects aims to strengthen connectivity and cooperation between China and over 140 countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, and beyond through infrastructure development and financial collaboration.
At its core, the BRI focuses on five key areas: policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people bonds. Massive investments in roads, railways, ports, pipelines, and other infrastructure projects make up a significant component, with over $1 trillion invested by China already and total expenses estimated to reach as high as $8 trillion over the life of the initiative.
Geostrategic and Economic Motivations
For China, the motivations behind the BRI are both geopolitical and economic. On the geopolitical front, the BRI serves to counter the U.S. “pivot to Asia” and project China's rising influence globally through development aid and investment, redrawing global trade relationships to put China at the center.
Economically, the BRI aims to develop new overseas markets for Chinese goods, boost incomes domestically, alleviate industrial overcapacity pressures, promote use of the renminbi internationally, and secure access to critical energy resources in the Middle East and Central Asia. The initiative also facilitates domestic development in China's historically underdeveloped western regions like Xinjiang.
Challenges and Critiques
The BRI has stoked opposition in some participating countries facing unsustainable debt burdens from massive Chinese loans. Opacity around bidding processes and required use of Chinese firms have raised additional concerns about debt trap diplomacy and erosion of national sovereignty.
More broadly, critics see the BRI as an unsettling expansion of Chinese geopolitical influence, using infrastructure as a Trojan Horse for regional domination and military expansion. The U.S. shares these concerns about China's ambitions, but has struggled to mount a competing large-scale investment initiative.
Relevance to the Space Economy
While not explicitly part of BRI policy and investment focus areas, China's space program and emerging space economy hold strategic relevance as both a source of national pride and technology innovation as well as an instrument of soft power projection.
China aims to establish a leading position in commercial launch services, satellite manufacturing, and other space industry segments. The country has already conducted uncrewed lunar and Mars missions and plans to launch its own space station and crewed lunar missions in coming years as it rapidly expands capabilities.
Success in cutting-edge fields like space elevates China's status as a rising science and technology power able to rival the U.S. Achievements in space also serve as a source of national pride and propaganda value domestically.
Internationally, China utilizes space cooperation and satellite exports to strengthen political and economic ties with other countries, particularly through joint projects with BRI partners. For example, China has launched satellites for Pakistan, Nigeria, and other countries and signed space cooperation agreements with multiple Arab states along the BRI.
As China continues to expand its space program and space industry, it will increasingly leverage these capabilities for political and economic gain with BRI countries through satellite services, space technology exports, cooperative projects, and prestige value. In turn, space serves as both a beneficiary and enabler of China's regional connectivity and influence ambitions through the BRI.
The BRI stands out as one of China's signature foreign policy and economic initiatives of recent decades. Through infrastructure and development aid, China seeks to project political and economic power globally, a vision some see as an unsettling expansion of Chinese geopolitical influence.
While not an explicit area of focus, China's space program and emerging commercial space industry hold relevance to BRI goals as sources of national pride and technology capability as well as instruments of soft power projection and relationship building with BRI partners. As China continues expanding its space achievements and cooperation via joint projects, satellite services, and technology exports, space will play an increasingly important role in advancing the country's connectivity ambitions.