Article: The Belt and Road Initiative Agreements: Characteristics, Rationale and Challenges

12 December 2020

By Jayne He


The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has brought with it an unprecedented number of agreements. BRI agreements consists of primary agreements (a list here) concluded by China and other governments and international organisations, particularly memorandums of understanding (MOUs), and secondary agreements (such as performance agreements to construct various projects, and underlying financing contracts). Such BRI agreements are a distinct, landmark feature of the initiative. Understanding BRI agreements is thus crucial for exploring China’s approach to the international economic order.

Focusing on BRI primary agreements and their close link with secondary agreements, the Co-Director of UNSW Law’s Herbert Smith Freehills China International Business and Economic Law (CIBEL) Centre, Professor Heng Wang’s paper is among one of the first articles to explore the following questions: 

  • What are the legal status and characteristics of primary agreements? 
  • Why are they adopted? 
  • What challenges do they face? 

BRI primary agreements can be regarded as a form of soft law, but as one that repurposes soft law characteristics for project development rather than rule development. 

BRI primary agreements feature the unique characteristics of (i) minimal legalisation, (ii) a coordinated, project-based nature, and (iii) hub-and-spoke network structure. They differ from existing soft law. While BRI primary agreements benefit from the advantages of soft law (e.g., reduced contracting costs, flexibility), they face various challenges.

The article argues that “BRI primary agreements currently appear to prioritise promoting project development over rule development, but it remains to be seen whether this will change over time. There is a possibility that China may alter its priorities over time”.

This article will be publishing on the forthcoming World Trade Review. Full text of the article is available below. Professor Wang’s research may be found at ResearchGate, SSRN, Twitter @HengWANG_law, and LinkedIn.  

The Belt and Road Initiative Agreements: Characteristics, Rationale and Challenges (Full text)


Further reading 

Article: China's Approach to the Belt and Road Initiative

Article: Selective Reshaping: China’s Paradigm Shift in International Economic Governance