The world's second-biggest economy plans to expand the number of construction and infrastructure projects it undertakes in less-developed countries in Asia and Africa. The initiative comes as China makes the transition from being an industrial powerhouse to a more consumer-oriented domestic economy.
The effort mixes free trade with joint-investment projects and stretches from Kazakhstan on China's border to Sri Lanka to as far west as the Netherlands. It will also give a boost to Chinese multinationals -- many of which are U.S.-listed -- as slowing economic growth means fewer projects at home.
Like China's efforts to develop parts of Africa in exchange for mineral extraction, the initiative that has taken form since 2013 involves mostly relatively poor countries in Central, South and West Asia.
Instead of signing free-trade deals or other formal pacts, China would work out informal deals allowing Beijing to develop the other countries' infrastructure and sell stuff to their markets. Those countries would get new infrastructure and be able to trade more freely with China's massive markets.
The initiative would "cushion the effects of (China's) deepening slowdown," said a U.S. think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an April 3 report after China's National Development and Reform Commission released a Belt and Road action plan.
The $10 trillion-plus economy slowed to a quarter-century low of 7.4% last year as officials try to steer it away from relying on manufacturing and toward services and consumption.
Expect road and rail routes, oil and natural gas pipelines and regional technology networks. More efforts would bring financial integration, lower trade barriers and expanded use of the yuan currency in neighboring countries, the think tank forecasts.
Construction will benefit first, particularly iron and steel, followed by power projects and seaports, said Zhao Xijun, deputy dean of school of finance at Renmin University of China. Services such as port operation would be the next phase, he said.
"A lot will be left to the private sector," Zhao said. "For example, after a railroad bridge is built, they would need an entity that can operate it."
State-owned investor China International Trust and Investment Corp. said in mid-year it would put $113 billion into 300 projects, such as oil pipelines and power grids. Chinese exports to the 60 belt-and-road countries received 22% of China's exports in 2014, a number on the rise.
In Africa, about 2,000 Chinese enterprises had invested in telecommunications, energy, farming and manufacturing projects as of late 2012, China's official Xinhua News Agency said then.
Top Chinese financial institutions Bank of China (BACHY) and China Merchants Bank (CIHKY) might lend money for projects along the Asia-to-Europe road. Beijing-based General Steel (GSI) could supply raw materials. Potential building contractors include China Ming Yang Wind Power (MY) and China Telecom (CHA) . Their executives can pile onto flights by China Southern Airlines (ZNH) , with routes to much of Asia from its hub in Guangzhou.
Veteran Chinese entrepreneurs, some with more than three decades of experience at home, are eager to find work outside to escape competition and slowing economic growth.
Nasdaq-listed Chinese IT hardware developer Lenovo (LNVGY) has become a global retail brand. Chinese telecom firms Huawei Technologies, which trades on a domestic exchange, and Nasdaq-listed ZTE (ZTCOY) have helped install networks in Southeast Asia.
"On one level there's the government, but right behind them there are the state-owned enterprises building roads or coming in as suppliers," said Jack Perkowski, managing director of Beijing-based merchant bank JFP Holdings. "Then behind that group you have private companies, because they see opportunities."