NSR programme presents: Strategic communications and China’s Belt and Road Initiative

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a series of Chinese-led connectivity and infrastructure projects designed to increase trade between China and the rest of the world. The initiative comprises two core of sub-initiatives: the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ which focuses on land routes in Eurasia, and the ‘21stCentury Maritime Silk Road’ which focuses on sea routes between China and Europe. Once completed, the projects of the BRI are estimated to total up to USD 10 trillion[1]and is spending up to USD 150bn per year. Analysts have pointed out several aims of the initiative[2][3], they range from developing the restive Western region of China which has not seen the recent economic progress of China’s eastern regions; to finding new investment opportunities; and from making use of China’s state-owned enterprises; to promoting trade and cooperation between China and the rest of the world: all to the benefit of China. These elements are all important factors in the creation, evolution and execution of the BRI, however, to focus on these elements is to miss the wider communications element: the Belt and Road Initiative should also be understood as a piece of Chinese strategic communications.

The term strategic communications is an oft-misunderstood term with varying interpretations and parameters. According to the United States Department of Defense, it is "the synchronization of images, actions and words to achieve the desired effect."[4]The parameters of the term are different for many people: for some, strategic communications exists across the private, public and third sectors, for others it is restricted to government activity, and for yet others it refers only to activity conducted by the military. In many ways, it doesn't matter who is doing the strategic communications, the core of strategic communications remains the same: what distinguishes strategic communications from other types of communication is the co-ordinated blending of actions, words, images etc. into a hierarchy of nested objectives that contributes to a coherent narrative and long-term goals.[5]Words without actions lack credibility and legitimacy; actions without context are meaningless. To engage in strategic communications is to weave all these together.

The BRI should be understood as a piece of strategic communications. Although it was not specifically formulated as a communications campaign, it has evolved and emerged over the course of several years into a declaration of China’s arrival at a position of peaceful, regional hegemony.

China wants to reinforce emerging narratives that it is “moving towards the center of global economic activity, strength and influence”[6]and communicate that China’s rise is not a threat, but rather a boon, to current world peace and security. The BRI pulls together overlapping narrative strands and weaves them into one statement of how the Chinese government wants China to be seen by both its domestic population and the rest of the world.

Specifically, it combines the overarching domestic narrative stating that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is responsible for achieving China’s ‘national rejuvenation’; with the overarching external narrative: that China’s so-called rise is a model of ‘peaceful development’. ‘National rejuvenation’ has been used by many Chinese leaders to refer to a return to China’s former greatness after China’s ‘century of humiliation’ (c. 1840 to 1949) and to suggest that the Chinese Communist Party is responsible for delivering China back to its former glory. ‘Peaceful development’ has much in common with the above: it is also based on the fact that China’s rightful place is as a globally powerful country and that China must rise again after the century of humiliation. The theme is one of the most important aspects of Chinese foreign policy in recent history, emerging to alleviate foreign fears about China’s rise. 

With the BRI, China is closing - what strategic communications practitioners would call the ‘say-do gap’. China is closing the gap between saying it is a global power and actually being one; between talking about ‘national rejuvenation’ and actually delivering its vision of it; and between preaching ‘peaceful development’, and actually practicing it. Moreover, China is using the actions, symbols and themes of the initiative to communicate to its domestic population, foreign populations and foreign governments. In a world of instant communications and exponentially increasing connectivity, the narratives the CCP communicate to one audience must be consistent with the narratives it communicates to any other audience. For all doubts over its financing, transparency and effectiveness, the BRI does just that.

To begin with, the unprecedented size, scope and ambition of the BRI is clearly a statement in of itself.[7]As Ma Junchi - an expert in China’s top think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences - suggests, the BRI projects “have drawn the world’s attention to China and its Belt and Road Initiative.”[8]The more than the world pays attention to the BRI, the more important the BRI - and therefore China - will look. The central role that China plays in creating, financing and executing these projects legitimises and reinforces these perceptions. Here, Suzanne Nossel’s piece on ‘smart power’ and the United States post-World War Two reconstruction offers some explanatory value. After World War Two, the US did not shoulder the burden of rebuilding Europe alone but instead shared out the task, while ensuring it stood at the centre of this new world order. It promoted US interests through an interdependent and “stable grid of allies, institutions and norms.”[9]In the case of China and the BRI, the CCP have started to do something similar: they have created or strengthened China-led institutions, norms and values. For example, China-led institutions such as the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are key investors in BRI projects.[10]Further, the fact that China finances infrastructure projects as a way to solve slow recovery from the financial crash allows China to export its model of economic development.[11]As the lead and key financier of these projects, China is able to negotiate with recipient countries to promote values it deems important such as ‘mutual non-interference in the [political] internal affairs’ of other countries and recognition of Taiwan as part of China.[12]Finally, the fact that China leads on all projects within the BRI means it is able to shape trade routes, and other global changes, to its advantage.21

Simultaneously, through the BRI, China is promoting its narrative of ‘peaceful development’. In official communications on the BRI, the CCP frequently references peace, so-called win-win-outcomes and commitments to the UN Charter.[13]In Xi’s 2013 speech launching the Silk Road Economic Belt, for instance, he states that China will“never intervene in the internal affairs of Central Asian countries, seek leadership in regional affairs, or operate a sphere of influence.”[14]The CCP also frequently makes explicit links between the BRI and China’s ‘peaceful development’ policy.  For example, in an article on the BRI, a senior ranking politician and then top policy advisor Yang Jiechi described the BRI as “a continuation and development of the important thinking of China’s ‘peaceful development’ in the new era.”[15]Statements such as these serve to reinforce China’s message that, although it is once again becoming a global player, it will be committed to economic development. Finally, the BRI physically contributes to China’s ‘peaceful development’. Not only does it facilitate greater economic, trade and other links – usually with benefits to both China and the recipient country -  but it also increases the amount of cooperation between China and its partners, and strengthens (China-led) multilateral organisations and dispute-resolving mechanisms.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the Belt and Road Initiative is treated as “more of a philosophy than a concrete plan”[16]. This serves to communicate China’s ‘peaceful development’ and ‘national rejuvenation’ at a range of levels and through a range of mediums. There are no official maps or fully-formed plans for the BRI[17], instead, the most in-depth official document on the initiative is the ‘Visions and Actions’ white paper which offers the overriding objective and broad, sweeping statements.[18]The initiative subsumes many projects already underway or even already completed.[19]When the BRI is a way of seeing the world rather than a concrete policy plan, it becomes a replicable idea - something that others can get involved with. It is flexible enough to serve different purposes and allow anyone to get involved. The result has been that actors at different levels in Chinese society are empowered and encouraged to become involved with the initiative and inadvertently become communicators of the BRI message. There is funding available to provincial governments, who are requested to each have their own investment plan for domestic development and global engagement,[20]Chinese businesses are encouraged to invest in BRI countries, and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are tasked with carrying out many of the BRI projects. This empowers Chinese actors in a range of positions and levels to complete BRI projects in a more coordinated and ‘on-message’ way.

The Belt and Road Initiative offers some lessons for national strategic communications. It shows that successful national branding relies on communicating the same message to the domestic population as well as foreign populations and governments. In a world of instant communications and ever more widespread connectivity, any public statement, action, image or symbol has the potential to be seen by anyone. Credibility – a vital commodity for any communicator - rests on delivering the same message to everyone. In tandem with this, runs the fact that credibility relies on doing as well as saying what you want to communicate. As stated before, words without actions lack credibility and legitimacy; actions without context are meaningless. Finally, and most importantly, the BRI shows us the importance of narratives-as-philosophies: messages are best delivered by a range of empowered actors who see the world in the way the narrative does.

The article is created within the framework of the New Silk Road Programme

[1]According to projections from Hong Qi, the chairperson of China Minsheng Bank. “Financing Belt and Road, opportunities worth over $10t,” China Daily, December 4, 2017, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2017-12/04/content_35193170.htm

[2]Raffaello Pantucci and Sarah Lain China's Eurasian Pivot: The Silk Road Economic Belt. (London: RUSI, 2017)

[3]James Sidaway and Chih Yuan Woon, “Chinese Narratives on “One Belt, One Road” (一带一路) in Geopolitical and Imperial Contexts,” The Professional Geographer, volume 6, (2017): 591-603

[4]Robert Hastings, “Principles of Strategic Communication,” United States’ Department of Defense, August 2008

[5]Christopher Paul, Strategic Communication: Origins, Concepts, and Current Debates(Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2011)

[6]Christopher K. Johnson President Xi Jinping’s "Belt and Road" Initiative(Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies), v.https://www.csis.org/analysis/president-xi-jinping%E2%80%99s-belt-and-road-initiative

[7]Kerry Brown The Critical Transition: China’s Priorities for 2021(London: Chatham House, 2017), 8.

[8]Ma Junchi “The Challenge of Different Perceptions on the Belt and Road Initiative,” Croatian International Relations Review(De Gruyter Open) 23 (78): 150.

[9] Suzanne Nossel, “Smart Power,” Foreign Affairs, March 1, 2004. Accessed March 21, 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2004-03-01/smart-power

[10]Tom Miller, China's Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road(London: Zed Books, 2017) 40-42

[11]Miller, China’s Asian Dream, 43

[12]Marlene Laruelle China's Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact on Central Asia(Washington D.C.: Central Asia Program, The George Washington University, 2018), 11.

[13]Alek Chance American Perspectives on the Belt and Road Initiative Sources of Concern and Possibilities for Cooperation(Washington D.C.: Institute for China-America Studies, 2016), 3.


[15]Johnson, President Xi Jinping’s "Belt and Road" Initiative, 14

[16]Paulo Duarte "Chapter 2. China in the Heartland: The Challenges and Opportunities of OBOR for Central Asia in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its impact in Central Asia, ed. Marlene Laurelle, (Washington D.C.: The George Washington University, 2018), 11.

[17]Miller, China’s Asian Dream, 33

[18]Pantucci and Lain, China's Eurasian Pivot, 4.

[19]Miller, China’s Asian Dream, 34.

[20]Pantucci and Lain, China's Eurasian Pivot, 12.

Publicēts 28. maijs, 2018

Autors Alexandra Clifton