China's Belt and Road Initiative and the Network Structure of International Relations

Zhengqi Pan


Reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road formed during the Han Dynasty, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) evokes powerful memories of China's glorious past and standing in the international system and has significant implications on international relations. Furthermore, to note China's more recent history since its opening up in 1978, the BRI marks an adventurous outreach that shows a stark departure from China's long-standing foreign policy of "tao guang yang hui" or keeping a low profile and biding time. Through a social network analysis approach, comprising network visualizations as well as modularity and centrality measures, this paper critically examines how and under what conditions the BRI is able to shape the structure of international economic and political interactions in China's image, with implications on global prosperity and global peace. Given the highly interdependent nature of the world today, a country's ability to exert geoeconomic and geopolitical power in the international system will not only depend on its own economic and military capabilities, but also its position in global networks. Consequently, I first assess the evolution of China's position in both trade and security networks from 1990 to 2016, drawing on novel data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Alliance Treaty Obligations and Provisions Project (ATOP). I then qualitatively evaluate the consequences of the BRI on China's position within these networks, with implications on the structure of international relations. I argue that the BRI would further cement China's centrality in trade and global value chains (GVCs), especially among countries in the Global South, but the overall structure of international security arrangements would remain largely unchanged, with the West still being highly dominant despite China's rising political and military influence. This applied networks paper adopts a mixed methods approach and also draws substantively from both international political economy and security perspectives in understanding how the BRI would impact the complexity of international interactions.

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