In 2013, newly ascended Chinese president Xi Jinping took the stage on an official visit to Kazakhstan and announced the Silk Road Economic Belt. Drawing upon two-thousand years of Chinese history, Xi declared that it was time to bring back the ancient Silk Road’s history of international friendship. A month later at the Indonesian parliament, Xi announced plans for the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a network of maritime trade routes that would create trade networks across Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Together, the land-based Economic Belt and maritime Silk Road form The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the most ambitious international infrastructure programs the world has ever seen. With a staggering portfolio of $1.3 trillion, the BRI has created hundreds of infrastructure projects throughout the world. The majority of the world’s nations—over 150—have signed onto the BRI’s awe-inspiring plan, which included six economic corridors that would create railways spanning the entire Eurasian continent from Rotterdam to Xi’an and sea routes from Fuzhou to Nairobi. The interconnectivity created by the BRI promised to be a model for win-win international cooperation by creating jobs, enhancing trade, and increasing cultural exchange across borders.
With such a grand vision, Xi declared that the BRI would be “the project of the century.” At the time, it seemed like a plausible claim. But a decade into the BRI, the program has turned out to be a chaotic mess. Plagued by corruption, labor violations, and debt unsustainability, it’s now clear that the BRI dream will not become a reality. Why did things go so wrong?