New Regionalism: Belt and Road Initiative and the Indo-Pacific Region

The Belt and Road Initiative (‘BRI’) represents the People’s Republic of China’s (‘China’) strategic economic and political interests in asserting its role as a global superpower.

The Belt and Road Initiative (‘BRI’) represents the People’s Republic of China’s (‘China’) strategic economic and political interests in asserting its role as a global superpower[i]. It links China with other regions through the development of infrastructure, including highways, railroads, sea routes, and ports. Unlike the region-specific and nation-States centric of ‘Old Regionalism’ (e.g., the European Union, ASEAN, African Union, etc), BRI involves broader regions, diverse actors, and does not aim to integrate national economies[ii]. Attracting more than 100 participating countries to date[iii], BRI can be discerned through the New Regionalism Theory specifically, given that the focus of Old Regionalism on region-specific, nation-States and supranationalism, is increasingly criticised for its ineffectiveness. The exercising of caution by BRI host countries’ is essential when weighing their political independence versus an economic dependence on China. Moreover, what is the significance of the Indo-Pacific region in this apparent New Regionalism? 

Old and New Regionalism

Regionalism entails the process through which nation-states within the same geographic region agree on certain rules to govern their interactions in achieving shared objectives[iv]. A region, whilst characterised by shared historical experience and concerns among countries within a distinct geographic area, is also a social construct formed through social interaction rather than merely natural entities[v]. Old Regionalism, born in Post World-War-II and deriving from scholars of European integration, focused on three elements: (1) economic and trade relations amongst nation-states, (2) regional integration which began with free-trade agreements between the more-advanced monetary, market, economic and political unions, and (3) institutional governance underpinned by international treaties and regional institutions including the European Union’s Commission, Parliament, and Central Bank[vi][vii]. The European Commission negotiates trade agreements on behalf of the Union and is a supranational authority with powers of enforcement, a level of regionalism that cannot be fully adopted by other associations of nations such as ASEAN[1],  SAARC[2], and IORA[3] in the Indo-Pacific region due to their principle of non-interference in member-states’ sovereignty, which contradicts the supranationalism of the EU[4].

The New Regionalism Theory (‘NRT’) emerged in the late 1990s as a critique to the European-centric economic and political path-dependent model of integration. World transformations of significance, including economic globalisation, revolutionary technologies, and complex transnational interactions, require a multidisciplinary and holistic approach when addressing regional integration[viii] including paying greater attention to the interconnectedness and interdependence brought by globalisation and its rapidly changing economic system[ix], New Regionalism involves spontaneous processes resulting from both endogenous and exogenous factors and bottom-up institutional buildings[x]. Not limited to region- specific and nation-sates, NRT considers sub-regional integration, diverse socio-cultural and political influences, non-trade issues, and regional cooperation through significant roles for non-state actors including NGOs and companies as sources of expertise, finance, technology, and human rights[xi]. The overarching goal is neither a national economy’s liberalisation nor integration but stronger global multilateralism. The following sections highlight how BRI may signify New Regionalism.

The Belt and Road Initiative (‘BRI’) and the Indo-Pacific Region

In 2013 China’s President Xi Jinping introduced two initiatives: (1) the “Silk Road Economic Belt” to link China and Europe through Central Asia, and (2) the “21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” linking Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, and Europe through sea routes[xii][xiii], collectively forming the BRI. Representing China’s strategy to enhance its economic development, BRI also asserts its role as a global economic and governance superpower[xiv]. It links China with other regions through infrastructure development including highways, railroads, sea routes, and ports[xv] targeting Asia, Europe, and Africa, together accounting for 64% of the global population and 30% of its GDP[xvi]. BRI, whose main objectives include policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and socio-cultural exchange[xvii], considers the Indo-Pacific Region central to its success.

The term “Indo-Pacific” describes the region stretching from the Indian to Pacific oceans, and is home to over two-thirds of the global economy and half of the world’s population[xviii]. The Indian Ocean alone, home of associations of nations such as ASEAN, SAARC, IORA, and African Union, supports 35% of the world’s population, 19% of global GDP, 90% of transited global trade, and 80% of oil exports[xix] The world’s fast-growing economies are also located in this region including India, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China[xx]. The region’s vast territory and strategic position, natural resources, and economic potential make it geopolitically significant attracting global powers whose interests often intersect and clash.

Two centuries ago the USA[5] increased its diplomatic presence within the region and consistently highlighted the vital importance of the region’s stability, prosperity, and security[xxi]. Initially, China rejected the Indo-Pacific concept describing it as a “retrogression of history” and a “come-back of Cold-War mentality”[xxii], viewing this regional governance framework as a hindrance to BRI projects and affecting both its domestic and trans-regional security[xxiii]. Different concepts of ‘Indo-Pacific’ have been proposed, although none has provided a novel approach relevant to the rise of China’s power in the region[xxiv]. ‘Structuralists’ view the creation of the Indo-Pacific region as an attempt by controllers of transnational capital to boost trade-liberalisation, easing their way to secure business locations with lower tax, cheaper labour, and weak environmental laws, supported by hegemonic State initiatives to gain control over the region[xxv]. Constructivists would argue that the Indo-Pacific region is socially constructed through political discourse amongst countries rather than a distinct physical geography[xxvi]. Nevertheless, in 2021 China finally engaged with and supported the “Indo-Pacific” as a region[xxvii], specifically in relation to ASEAN as its strategic partner in the region[xxviii].

BRI’s Multi-Dimensional Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region

Some of BRI’s main objectives relating to policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial cooperation, and socio-cultural exchange[xxix] are highly evident in the Region.

Reaching $80B annually between 2013 and 2017, BRI’s infrastructure-based investment has also expanded to financing emerging markets and developing economies with $16B committed annually[xxx]. One of the largest BRI projects is in Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (‘CPEC’), which aims to strengthen the geographic ties, trade and business flows of countries within the sub-region, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics[xxxi][xxxii]. Launched in 2015 this $60B CPEC includes energy projects and transport infrastructure[xxxiii].

ASEAN, a key player in the Indo-Pacific, plays a central role in BRI through the following: (1) the  establishment of an ASEAN-China policy framework, and (2) bilateral ties by ASEAN member States with China[xxxiv]. The former includes the “2+7 Cooperation Framework”, comprising a two-point political consensus on strategic trust and mutually beneficial economic development, and a seven-point priority in maritime, finance, security, environment, and people-to-people cooperation. The China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank were proposed under this framework. An example of bilateral ties is Indonesia hosting 21,022 BRI’s projects amounting to $30.2B between 2019 and early 2024, due to its strategic-geographical position connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans[xxxv][xxxvi]. Economic cooperation often results in the strengthening of political ties, and in 2023 China and Indonesia released a Joint Statement on Deepening Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation[xxxvii], followed by Indonesia’s reassurance in early 2024 of the bilateral relationship’s progress with a further commitment to build a comprehensive strategic partnership between the two nations[xxxviii].

One feature of BRI’s policy is its adherence to the principle of non-interference in host countries internal affairs, such that investments in infrastructure projects are conducted without any conditionality[xxxix], echoing the ASEAN Way[xl] and other associations of nations, including the African Union, SAARC, and IORA in which member-countries are engaged within BRI.  

Within the socio-cultural domain, ASEAN and China continue developing robust cooperation, including through the “ASEAN-China Youth Exchange Visit” programme that aims to foster a sense of belonging, good neighbourly relations, and regional citizenship. It also aims to enhance awareness of ASEAN-China cooperation and provide a platform for youth to share knowledge, experiences, and challenges relating to educational and leadership development[xli].

Epilogue: how can BRI host countries achieve political independence whilst heavily dependent economically on China’s investment?

The implementation of BRI projects in the Indo-Pacific signifies the New Regionalism, emphasising multi-dimensional cooperation, diverse actors, flexible structures, (sub)regional interdependence, and non-interference in host countries’ political affairs. BRI has showcased how regional cooperation can be conducted beyond being region-specific and without supranationalism.  BRI appears to have reshaped regional dynamics and has fostered greater connectivity and regional integration. However, its apparent success needs to be compounded with cautious consideration by BRI host countries.

How may host countries maintain their political independence whilst heavily reliant on China’s investments? This ‘dependency dilemma’ is evident in the South China Sea conflict where ASEAN countries struggle to balance their actions towards China in territorial disputes whilst also securing their economic interests.

(Sub)-regional associations of nations within the Indo-Pacific region must advance their cooperative framework to maximise the probability for securing the benefits of BRI and minimise ‘capital flight’.

Economic diversification through improving economic ties and promoting strategic infrastructure development with other countries or associations of nations is paramount to reducing dependency risks.

BRI’s policy of ‘non-interference’, whilst enticing for recipient countries, must be critically examined with specific regard to ‘externalities’, including the aspects of environmental/biodiversity degradation and equity benefit distribution to local communities

Lastly, on the notion of the ‘Indo-Pacific Region’, whilst this may be seen as a social construction by some analysts increasing disputes are witnessed in the area. These range from disputes on territorial sovereignty to rights of resource extraction and the development of infrastructure, to (non)human transnational issues, both amongst countries within the Region but also by global powers from the outside. Evident also is the recent divergence in the paths of economies with Japan falling into recession, China’s property crisis slowing its economic growth, India’s rapid economic growth economy, and Indonesia expected to surpass Russia’s economy. These factors highlight the importance of understanding regional dynamics and integration through a more comprehensive lens that includes multiple actors, broader and inclusive regions, and multi-disciplinary knowledge. The New regionalism theory holds such a promise.

[1] ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations)

[2] SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation)

[3] IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association)

[4] EU (European Union)

[5] USA (United States of America)

[i] Ohashi, H. (2018). The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the context of China’s opening-up policy. Journal of Contemporary East Asia Studies7(2), 85–103.

[ii] Xinhua. (2023, October 11). Key takeaways from BRI white paper.

[iii] Nedopil, C. (2023). Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Green Finance & Development Center.

[iv] Busbarat, P., Camba, A., Pratiwi, F. I., Po, S., Đỗ, H., Sengkhamkhoutlavong, B., Yean, T. S., & Thuzar, M. (2023, December 5). How Has China’s Belt and Road Initiative Impacted Southeast Asian Countries?

[v] Stubbs, R., & Underhill, G. R. D. (2000). Political economy and the changing global

order (pp. 231–234). Oxford University Press.

[vi] Griffiths, M., & O’Callaghan, T. (2013). International Relations: The Key Concepts. Routledge.

[vii] Dent, C. M. 2017. “East Asian Integration Towards an East Asian Economic Community”. ADBI Working Paper 665. Tokyo: Asian Development Bank Institute.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Yuzhu, W. (2021). New Regionalism Reshaping the Future of Globalization. China Quarterly of International Strategic Studies6, 249–254.

[x] Hettne, B., & Söderbaum, F. (1998). The New Regionalism Approach17.

[xi] Jessie P H Poon (2001), “Regionalism in the Asia Pacific: is Geography 

destiny?” Area Vol. 33, No.33, pp. 252–260

[xii] Johnston, L. A. (2018). The Belt and Road Initiative: What is in it for China? Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies6(1), 40–58.

[xiii] Xinhua. (2017, April 10). Full Text: Vision and actions on jointly building Belt and Road – Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.

[xiv] Ohashi, H. (2018). The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the context of China’s opening-up policy. Journal of Contemporary East Asia Studies7(2), 85–103.

[xv] European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. (2023). Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). EBRD.

[xvi] Huang, Y. (2016). Understanding China’s Belt & Road Initiative: Motivation, Framework and Assessment. China Economic Review40(40), 314–321.

[xvii] European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. (2023). Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). EBRD.

[xviii] Jaskólska, A. (2023). Handbook of Indo-Pacific Studies.

[xix] Weligamage, T. (2023). Countering Maritime Crime in the Indian Ocean: Evaluating the Effectiveness of IORA.

[xx] Ha, L. (2024, June 10). Top Five Fastest-Growing Economies in 2024. Euromonitor.

[xxi] The White House. (2022). Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States. The White House.

[xxii] Jaknanihan, A. A. (2022). Beyond Inclusion: Explaining China’s Rejection on the Indo-Pacific Regional Construct. Global: Jurnal Politik Internasional24(1).

[xxiii] Wu, Y.-S., & Alden, C. (2022). China’s Alternate Gaze towards the Indo-Pacific. Strategic Review for Southern Africa44(2).

[xxiv] Heiduk, F., & Wacker, G. (2020). Significance, Implementation and Challenges. Stiftung Wisenschaft Und Politik.

[xxv] Griffiths, M., & O’Callaghan, T. (2013). International Relations: The Key Concepts. Routledge.

[xxvi] Pfefferle, T. (2013). The International System as Social Construct. E-International Relations.

[xxvii] Singh, S., & Marwah, R. (2023). China and the Indo-Pacific: Maneuvers and Manifestations. In Google Books. Springer Nature.

[xxviii] Wu, Y.-S., & Alden, C. (2022). China’s Alternate Gaze towards the Indo-Pacific. Strategic Review for Southern Africa44(2).

[xxix] European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. (2023). Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). EBRD.

[xxx] Rajah, R. (2023, March 29). Indo-Pacific infrastructure development financing: an agenda for Australia and Europe | Lowy Institute.

[xxxi] Feingold, S. (2023, November 20). China’s Belt and Road Initiative turns 10. Here’s what to know. World Economic Forum.

[xxxii] CPEC. (n.d.). Introduction | China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority Official Website. Retrieved June 26, 2024, from

[xxxiii] Habibi , N., & Yue Zhu, H. (2020, January 22). What CPEC Means for China’s Middle East Relations.

[xxxiv] Chan, I. (2017). Current Trends in Southeast Asian Responses to the Belt and the Road Initiative. ASEAN and the Indian Ocean: The Key Maritime Links, 42-51.

[xxxv] Usman, R. (2024, May 14). Nilai Investasi China di Indonesia Capai US$ 30,2 Miliar Sejak 5 Tahun Terakhir (Handoyo, Ed.).

[xxxvi] Rakhmat, M. Z. (2023). The Political Economy of China-Indonesia Relations in 2022. In Google Books. INDEF.

[xxxvii] KEMLU. (2023, October 18). Joint Statement On Deepening Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation Between The Peoples Republic Of China And The Republic Of Indonesia 18 October 2023 Beijing | Portal Kementerian Luar Negeri Republik Indonesia.

[xxxviii] KEMLU. (2024, February 6). Indonesia And China Discuss Strengthening Comprehensive Strategic Partnership | Portal Kementerian Luar Negeri Republik Indonesia.

[xxxix] Busbarat, P., Camba, A., Pratiwi, F. I., Po, S., Đỗ, H., Sengkhamkhoutlavong, B., Yean, T. S., & Thuzar, M. (2023, December 5). How Has China’s Belt and Road Initiative Impacted Southeast Asian Countries?

[xl] ASEAN. (n.d.). You are being redirected… Retrieved June 28, 2024, from

[xli] ASEAN. (2016). ASEAN, China youth elevate their education and leadership through exchange programme.

Aisya Muyassara Wisnugroho
Aisya Muyassara Wisnugroho
I am a bachelor student at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia majoring in International Relations. I am Intellectually curious and readily engage socially, I embrace challenges and face risks without fear. My motivation to study International Relations is not only to broaden my knowledge and become globally aware geo-politically and culturally, but also to change my country, Indonesia, positively.