The “Belt and Road Initiative” and China’s grand strategy making
: how China transforms itself into the "Center of Production and Trade" and a "Norm-Maker"

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Since the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) began dominating China’s diplomatic agenda from 2013, this topic has attracted a substantial amount of scholarship to interpret China’s strategic motives. Most have adopted a bottom-up perspective to analyze the BRI and have illustrated its objectives, feasibilities and risks. However, they tend to become mired in the “blind men and an elephant” dilemma that focuses on details but overlooks the bigger picture. Therefore, this thesis adopts a grand strategy approach and a top-down perspective, seeking to build a conceptual framework to understand China’s strategic actions in a coherent logic and define the BRI in this framework. This study is dedicated to interpreting how the BRI serves China’s grand strategy, elaborating the logic of the BRI, enumerating the objectives of the BRI and elucidating the relations between the BRI and other diplomatic actions of China.

This study argues that China’s ultimate strategic pursuit of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is mainly aimed at becoming “the center of production and trade” in material terms and “a norm-maker” in conceptual terms, as well as reaching a basic strategic balance with the US. Primarily speaking, the BRI is designed to reshape China’s economic geography by “better connectivity” with overseas markets, placing China in the center of the Eurasian logistics network and making China a “two oceans country” bordering both the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. In parallel with the domestic struggles for an overall industrial upgrade, the BRI aims to help China reach more upstream resources and energy supplies and trade them in a de-dollarized way, which would enable China to build a global production network centered on its productive capacity, technology and demands and denominated in the RMB. In this way, US influence is expected to be marginalized in the long run. Additionally, China aims to define a governing approach with development-oriented norms and performance-based legitimacy through the BRI, as an alternative to the prevailing neoliberal Washington Consensus, which elevates China to be a norm-maker in global governance. In a broader sense, the BRI signals the third transformation of China’s grand strategy and diplomacy, whereby China seeks to reshape its international surroundings actively, rather than adapt to it passively as before. This is demonstrated by China’s resort to the UN-led post-war international order as the source of legitimacy to challenge the universalism of the US-led liberal international order.

China’s upgrading industrial structure and expanding overseas interests are expected to encroach on the vested interests of other great powers. For this reason, China vows to create more shared interests with those great powers by its growing purchasing power, opening-up market and cooperation within the BRI framework, in order to stabilize the relations and earn their support to make the BRI a shared platform with joint efforts for global development. Meanwhile, as the Sino-US clash of interests is largely structural, China is prompted to encourage other great powers to distance their policies from the US ones, in the hope of forming a “united front” with them against the US on some issues. This paves the way for a multi-polarized world, which is predicted to undermine US global leadership and facilitate China to reach a strategic balance with the US.

The main contribution of this thesis is establishing a comprehensive framework for analyzing China’s grand strategy. Thanks to this grand strategy framework, this thesis identifies China’s major strategic objectives, around which its manifold, disconnected and seemingly self-contradictory strategic actions can be interpreted in a coherent logic. From this top-down angle, it is easier to reach a holistic understanding of the BRI by embedding it in China’s grand strategy. The BRI’s objectives and scope can also be delimited more definitely from other policies’, allowing scholars and policy-makers to reach a more comprehensive and accurate comprehension of the BRI. Likewise, this thesis builds grand strategy frameworks to analyze other great powers’ strategic actions, in order to point out the shared interests and flashpoints between China and other great powers. Thus, this thesis demonstrates how the BRI facilitates China to stabilize and advance the relations with these great powers.
Date of Award1 Oct 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorNatasha Kuhrt (Supervisor) & John Bew (Supervisor)

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