China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), labelled as the world's largest infrastructure program, has so far directed investments mainly to energy and transportation networks in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Since its launch, the BRI has changed significantly in terms of scale, stakeholders, and investment sectors and continues to evolve, also in light of the COVID-19 crisis. However, so far, there is no systematic and comprehensive analysis of how it might look like in the medium-term future (2035), even though academic literature on the BRI is burgeoning.
We address this research gap and apply a scenario method with a 2 × 2 matrix, building on insights from ∼40 qualitative interviews with representatives from business, non-profit and public sectors from China and BRI countries, complemented by desk research of press and academic articles.
We conceptualise the BRI alongside its degree of economic globalisation and multilateralism, which are both impacted by the global pandemic response. We arrive at the four scenarios Asian, Vibrant, Irrelevant, and International BRI. These scenarios show that different development are possible with the BRI's geographical scope, the investment volumes and sectors, the funding structure, and also the orientation towards sustainability. These post-pandemic pathways of the BRI might help decision-makers in business and politics to prepare their responses and strategies. The scenarios can also inform the academic debate around conceptualising the BRI and provide a qualitative basis for future quantitative impact assessments.