Despite assumptions that the Belt and Road Initiative is a coherent policy formulated and implemented by central authorities, provincial officials play a pivotal role, Zenel Garcia and Phillip Guerreiro write.
While China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, some provincial officials, especially frontier provinces, had laid the foundations for economic cooperation with neighboring countries since the late 1980s.
As a result, officials have developed local knowledge and expertise that has helped inform central authorities as they formulate and implement major cross-border policies. This process has resulted in complementarity between provinces, where they complement or enhance each other’s efforts, as well as competition within the wider BRI.
One area where this is evident is along China’s southern frontier, where Yunnan and Guangxi’s efforts broadly complement the BRI, but also produce competition as they jockey to position themselves as gateways to Southeast Asia and beyond.
The BRI Vision Document identifies Yunnan and Guangxi as pivotal players in China’s southwestern region, envisioning both provinces as hubs that link interior provinces to foreign markets along the BRI’s economic corridors.
While this might imply that central authorities selected these provinces for the role, it merely reflects the reality that provincial officials had already positioned their provinces to do this.
Furthermore, they had already laid the groundwork for key economic corridors of the BRI, such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC), the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), and the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CICPEC).
To compete with coastal provinces, Yunnan officials sought to position the province as a hub, linking interior provinces with South and Southeast Asia.
Consequently, the multilateral Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum aimed to increase cross-border investment and transportation linkages in the late 1990s. The BCIM served as the foundation for the Kunming Initiative and, ultimately, the BCIMEC.
Created in 1992 with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank, the GMS originally provided space for regional actors to connect on norms in the Mekong Basin and promote sustainable growth. However, after the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was signed in 2002, the GMS saw interest in it revived among both central and provincial officials in China.
The GMS focused on five ‘strategic thrusts’ that featured heavy provincial presences and eventually had an influence on the BRI’s implementation in Southeast Asia, especially in the Mekong Basin.
These initiatives resulted in a flurry of connective infrastructure projects in recent years, either falling under the BRI or meant to enhance existing BRI projects, including the connection of Yunnan to the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) via highways and railways.
Furthermore, while GMS has pursued a comprehensive regional electrical grid, a component of which involves wide scale development of hydropower in the LMB, with some facilities specifically marketed by PowerChina to power other projects in the BRI. This includes the including the newly opened China-Laos high-speed rail (HSR), which connects people and cargo between Kunming and Vientiane.
Not to be outdone by their Yunnan counterparts, Guangxi officials have also positioned their province as a hub that links China’s coastal trade centers, its interior provinces, and ASEAN countries through the CICPEC and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR).
This is reflected in the province’s strategy to strengthen cooperation within China and with countries in the region. Since the announcement of the BRI, Guangxi has led the construction of 13 expressway passages, 11 railway passages, and a 2,000 tonne class waterway passage leading to neighbouring provinces and countries to improve connectivity.
These efforts accelerated the growth of the Beibu Gulf Economic Zone, which was established in 2006, resulting in 14 industrial parks covering 200 square kilometers by 2015 and is continuing to grow.
Guangxi has also sought to make the Beibu Gulf Port the key gateway to ASEAN countries by investing in ports in Brunei, Malaysia, and Myanmar. Collectively these projects facilitate Guangxi’s efforts to play a pivotal role in the CICPEC and MSR.
These examples indicate that the formulation and implementation of the BRI is not as centralised as is often assumed. Provincial officials have, and continue to exercise, significant influence over the process.
Although this fragmented process produces competition between provinces for resources from the central government, which can result in inefficiencies, it ultimately results in complementarity within the broader BRI. So long as the projects are completed and result in greater levels of development and transportation linkages for the interior, central officials are content.