In the last two decades, bilateral and regional trade agreements (RTAs) have been considered a primary force to advance the world trading system because the Doha Development Agenda of the WTO has stagnated since its launch in 2001. The continuous expansion of the European Union and the American-led NAFTA and TPP as well as bilateral FTAs between the United States and EU and their partners best exemplified this phenomenon. However, such an approach is facing serious challenges from rising anti-globalization sentiment originating in the EU and United States in recent years. In June 2016, the United Kingdom decided to exit the EU as a result of a referendum. This is the first time a EU member chose to leave. On January 23, 2017, at the start of his presidency, Donald Trump signed as his first executive order the withdrawal from TPP, which his predecessor spent years concluding with 11 partners. These two consecutive dramatic actions of the previous and current world leaders shocked the globe. Next to the WTO, regionalism is seen as the second-best choice in promoting globalization. Now, two regional initiatives led by developed countries are facing a serious backlash. The world is concerned that this means the end and a reversal of globalization.
Since its WTO accession in 2001, China has also been actively negotiating FTAs with its neighbors as well as some remote partners such as Iceland and New Zealand. While its WTO accession package was praised for its ambition and courage, it is difficult to defend Chinese FTAs as comparable to those of developed countries in terms of market access and institutional changes. One explanation for that is China has made very high-level multilateral commitments. Another one is China is not in such a comfortable strategic and economic position as the United States in negotiating FTAs with either developed or developing countries. The former want to obtain more market access concessions and institutional reforms from China, while the latter are afraid to expose their domestic industries to China’s overwhelming competitiveness in manufacturing. In addition, the Chinese government seems more confident in its own institutions and unwilling to change them due to outside pressure, especially after the 2008 global financial crisis.
President Xi Jinping proposed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during his state visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in September and October 2013, which soon was made a top national priority and even included in the Constitution of the Communist Party of China at the 19th Party Congress in 2017. Nadege Rolland labels this China’s Grand Strategy1 and the organizing foreign policy concept in the Xi Jinping era.2 One key feature of BRI in comparison with RTAs is that BRI focuses more on improving physical connectivity rather than reducing institutional barriers. The logic of physical connectivity is undoubtedly powerful, especially for developing countries with poor infrastructure. The impact of more and better international links on the regional landscape could be huge, not only by boosting trade and commerce but also by easing flows of energy and other resources, stimulating technological innovation, influencing culture and politics, and shaping strategic choices. Given the fact that RTAs are facing serious difficulties, the BRI looks like an attractive and feasible alternative to promote regional economic integration and globalization. However, there are also plenty of uncertainties and ambiguities surrounding the BRI, particularly due to China’s centrality as well as its direction of economic and strategic development. Hence, this chapter explores BRI characteristics in promoting regional economic integration and whether it could become an alternative approach to regionalism and globalization for China as well as the world.