This essay considers the nature of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia. Rather than a “grand strategy” coordinated by Beijing, it is better seen as a decentered, contradictory network of transnational clientelist relationships and semiautonomous profit-seeking institutions. While building much-needed infrastructure, these projects serve to enrich local political elites while fueling resentment and suspicion among their populations. Evidence for this argument is presented from three spheres: the principal implementers of the BRI, the main projects that have been enacted under its auspices in Central Asia, and examples of how these projects have been marred by elite corruption and local protest.

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