Belt and Road Initiative: Satellite Internet Review

Everything you need to know about China’s new satellite internet service, the Belt and Road Initiative

Ben Gran
Jul 21, 2023
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What is the Belt and Road Initiative?

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a major investment project by the Chinese government to create new infrastructure and trade routes worldwide, especially in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. With the Belt and Road Initiative, China is attempting to increase its economic influence and strategic soft power in other countries while boosting opportunities for Chinese companies. 

Throughout the industry, the Belt and Road Initiative is believed to be one of the largest infrastructure investment projects in human history. According to the Wall Street Journal, China has spent over $1 trillion on BRI projects, reaching 147 countries. 

Part of the Belt and Road Initiative involves digital infrastructure and satellite internet service, also called the Digital Silk Road. Developing countries are eager to expand their internet connectivity and improve their telecommunications infrastructure, and China is providing funding to help make this happen. For example, according to W Gyude Moore, the former Minister of Works in Liberia, the vast majority of Africa’s 4G cellular data networks and its future 5G networks are and will be built by Huawei, a Chinese tech company.  

China SatNet is the name of China’s planned satellite internet service, and though it has not yet launched, it intends to be powered by a government-funded network of low-Earth orbit satellites. According to SpaceNews, China SatNet plans to launch a constellation of 12,992 total LEO satellites for its satellite internet service. 

Let’s take a closer look at how the Belt and Road Initiative is shaping the development of satellite internet service worldwide, how China’s satellite internet service compares to other satellite internet providers, and why it matters to you.

Belt and Road vs. other satellite internet providers

China SatNet

  • China SatNet intends to launch 12,992 LEO satellites and offer service throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
  • Project Not Yet Available

  • Hughesnet
    • $74.99–$109.99/mo.
    • 50-100Mbps
    • 200GB/mo.
    • $99.99—$119.99/mo.
    • 12–150Mbps
    • Unlimited

  • Starlink launched 3,500 satellites and offers service throughout North America, South America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan

    • $120.00–$500.00/mo.
    • 40–220Mbps
    • Unlimited data
  • China SatNet’s Belt and Road satellite internet service is not yet available and probably would not be offered to U.S. customers, but it will be offered in Belt and Road countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Because of that, it could even potentially become a competitor to Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and other Western satellite internet services. 

    But if you’re looking for satellite internet service right now, you have options, as shown above. We recommend Hughesnet as the best satellite internet service, but Viasat and Starlink are great options too.

    Interested in satellite internet providers available in your area? Enter your zip code below to find them.

    Is the Belt and Road Initiative good?

    Is the BRI an innocent gesture of economic partnership, or is it an ominous expansion of China’s Communist government power? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and it depends on which country’s motives you believe. 

    Every country tries to exert influence and create more favorable conditions for its companies and industries in international trade. In that way, China is no different from the U.S. or other major powers. Supporters of China argue that the Belt and Road Initiative is an act of generosity, international solidarity, and an important investment in improving the infrastructure of the developing world. 

    These supporters claim that the BRI is making it easier to boost international trade and economic development in a win-win way for everyone. Developing countries need infrastructure like railroads, power plants, bridges, cellular networks, and satellite internet service. China is helping to pay for it. Supporters say China is bringing peaceful investment and business opportunities to poor countries that America and the rich countries of the West have overlooked for too long.   

    But not everyone accepts the claims of the Chinese Communist government at face value. There are some potential negatives to the Belt and Road Initiative as well. 

    What are the negatives of the Belt and Road Initiative?

    China’s BRI economic development assistance is not a gift-it’s a loan, and strings are attached. Critics argue that the Belt and Road Initiative may allow the Chinese Communist government to exert authoritarian control over the internet, promote undemocratic values, and potentially cause “debt traps” in developing countries that cannot afford to pay the future bills for the infrastructure that China is building.

    For example, according to an AidData study, many BRI contracts do not allow the recipient nations to restructure their debts with the Paris Club of major creditor nations like the U.S., Japan, and Western Europe. This gives China more power over the borrower nations, and reduces financial business opportunities from the U.S. and other democracies.

    The BRI contracts also typically give China the right to demand repayment at any time. This could pressure BRI borrower countries to support China on other issues like human rights and international conflicts.

    Countries that do business with China’s BRI could also end up borrowing too much. For example, according to Bloomberg, Pakistan benefited from $29 billion of BRI projects, many of which built much-needed power plants. But the country now owes almost $30 billion to China, and Bloomberg says it's struggling to repay.

    Along with the debt burdens, some countries realize that their BRI projects do not actually create economic value, and with too many failed BRI projects, poor countries could find themselves owing billions of dollars to China, and only have “white elephant” projects to show for it.

    Another potential negative is related to satellite internet. If China SatNet starts to offer satellite internet service, there are concerns that countries that adopt its use could fall under control of the Chinese government. China is not a free, democratic country; the internet in China is heavily surveilled and censored by the government, and protesters are often arrested.

    If China’s satellite internet service gives other countries’ governments the ability to restrict the internet, critics fear it could lead to more authoritarianism and human rights abuses all over the world

    Has the BRI been successful?

    It’s hard to say if the Belt and Road Initiative has been successful. The Chinese government does not share all of the data or investment details about its BRI projects, so some information is shrouded in mystery. We do know there have been some success stories and some failures. 

    One success is in Malaysia, which is building a 640-kilometer railway line to connect the country’s east coast with the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. The deal between Malaysia and China was renegotiated in 2019 to help Malaysia reduce the cost by one-third, as noted by Bloomberg, and the railway is expected to be completed in 2026. 

    According to a 2019 World Bank study of BRI transportation projects across 70 countries, if implemented fully, the Belt and Road Initiative could lift 32 million people out of moderate poverty (defined as living on less than $3.20 per day), increase global trade by 7.2 percent, and increase global income by 2.9 percent. 

    Unfortunately, Belt and Road projects do not always succeed because of unique issues within each country. Sometimes, China’s BRI projects cause resentment and damage relationships with other countries instead of the goodwill and economic partnerships that were intended. 

    For example, the island nation of Maldives, located in the Indian Ocean, borrowed heavily from China to build a new airport runway, a bridge, housing, and hospitals. But according to Bloomberg, as of 2018 the small country owed 20% of its GDP in debt to China, and its economic development officials felt “burned” by working with the Chinese government; they felt that China’s negotiators drove up the price of the projects to be higher than the Maldives could afford to borrow. 

    Is the Belt and Road Initiative real?

    The Belt and Road Initiative is real, and it’s delivering real-world results in 147 countries. BRI has built power plants, airport runways, ports, bridges, railways, cellular networks, and other infrastructure projects. 

    There have been many misunderstandings and miscommunications about the Belt and Road Initiative. As described in Bloomberg in 2018, this initiative is not a “master plan” and has sometimes been disorganized and inconsistent in how it is carried out. It’s not always clear which projects should be classified as Belt and Road projects versus just everyday Chinese companies doing business. The Chinese government doesn’t fund all BRI projects; some funding comes from private investors. 

    The Belt and Road Initiative has had failures and successes, and not every country wants to participate or borrow as much as China’s negotiators ask. Some countries have canceled BRI projects or rejected Belt and Road money.

    What country is behind the Belt and Road initiative?

    China is the originator of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese government, some private investors, and local governments in the countries where the projects are built all fund BRI projects.

    Who benefits from Belt and Road?

    There are a few key groups that benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative:

    Belt and Road borrower countries

    Dozens of countries all over the world have been doing business with China through the BRI since it launched in 2013. Many of them have obtained valuable infrastructure projects that might not have been completed without China’s support. If the BRI projects are successful and the money borrowed turns out to be a good investment, these smaller countries will benefit from future economic growth and jobs for years to come. 

    Chinese companies

    Chinese companies, such as Huawei (the Chinese tech firm that built 4G cellular networks in Africa) and Chinese construction companies, do much of the work for Belt and Road Initiative projects. The Belt and Road Initiative provides business for Chinese companies and creates jobs for Chinese workers. 

    Chinese government

    China is one of the biggest countries in the world and a major supplier of manufactured goods, but until recently it was not a major player in global affairs. The BRI is a chance for China to make friends, create allies, and expand its influence with other countries to boost China’s soft power and geopolitical strength. 

    How many countries are in the Belt and Road Initiative?

    According to the Green Finance and Development Center, 147 countries have signed on to BRI projects or expressed interest in doing so.

    How many Latin American countries are in the Belt and Road Initiative?

    The Green Finance and Development Center’s map of the BRI shows that 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have signed on to Belt and Road projects, ranging from Cuba and Nicaragua to Chile and Argentina.

    Is Japan part of BRI?

    Japan is not included in the Belt and Road Initiative. China and Japan are regional rivals; China does not want to boost Japan’s infrastructure and Japan tends to be suspicious of the Chinese government’s agenda. Even if offered, Japan likely would not accept this level of Chinese government involvement in its economy. Japan is one of the world’s wealthiest countries and can afford to fund its own infrastructure, in a way that many poorer countries cannot. 

    Japan is pursuing its own smaller scale version of the Belt and Road Initiative. Bloomberg cites that Japan plans for over $330 billion of investments in infrastructure projects throughout Asia.

    Is India a part of BRI?

    India, like Japan, is a regional rival of China and is not included in the BRI for similar reasons. India is suspicious of China’s motives with BRI. The Government of India’s Ministry of External Affairs released a statement essentially warning that China could be using BRI projects to dominate Asia by creating non-repayable debt traps for poor countries and possible future restrictions on its connectivity infrastructure.

    Is Mexico in the Belt and Road Initiative?

    Mexico is not part of the BRI. As of March 2023, Mexico has not signed on to any Belt and Road projects. Since Mexico is a neighbor of the U.S. and has such close trade ties with America, it would be unlikely for Mexico to sign up for the BRI.

    Is the US part of the Belt and Road Initiative?

    The U.S. is not part of the BRI. In fact, the BRI was created to help China become more like the U.S. as a global power: to boost China’s international prestige and economic strength, and to build a global network of countries that are friendly to China, that want to do business with China, and that support China’s national interests.

    The U.S. government has proposed its own alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2021 by President Joe Biden and called the Build Back Better World Initiative (B3W). Still, this initiative has only received $6 million for regional commitments as of 2022—much less than what China is spending on BRI.

    Why is the Belt and Road Initiative controversial?

    The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as described in Bloomberg, has been called “the project of the century,” an “exercise in empire building” and a “new world order.” People who are suspicious of the Chinese government are more likely to be critical of the BRI, while many people in developing countries are grateful to get the investment money to build new projects.

    Supporters of the BRI argue that the BRI is not a “new world order.” China has always been a big, powerful country with a crucial role in the global economy, and the BRI is helping China return to its rightful place in the world. Many of the trade routes that the BRI is building mimic ancient trade routes, such as the old Silk Road of overland trade routes through Central Asia. In that way, the BRI is nothing new. 

    As for “empire building,” China does all of this peacefully, without invasions or military force. China’s BRI is bringing billions of dollars of investment and building infrastructure in countries that need it. China’s supporters ask, how can peaceful, mutually beneficial economic development be bad? 

    But many American observers and economic development experts in democratic countries are concerned that the Belt and Road Initiative is kind of a Trojan Horse—that it could become a way for China’s government to entrap other countries and force them to support China’s strategic and military goals. 

    Instead of building soft power with pop culture (like South Korea) and internationally beloved brands like Coca-Cola or Toyota, critics say the Belt and Road Initiative is a more forceful way for China to make friends and influence people. One worry among Western democracies is that the BRI might help China force other countries to help it get its way on other issues, like human rights abuses toward the Uyghur population, or possible future military action against Taiwan.

    How much has China invested in BRI?

    The Wall Street Journal estimates that, as of 2023, China has already invested $1 trillion in BRI projects.

    Is the Belt and Road initiative causing a debt crisis for China?

    It’s not quite accurate to say that China is in a “debt crisis” because of the Belt and Road Initiative. According to CNN, total Chinese government debt is now at 102% of China’s GDP, which is still lower than the U.S. national debt (122% of U.S. GDP). Although China has been having trouble with government debt in recent years, much of that debt is related to borrowing within China, not the foreign loans that China has made to other countries as part of the BRI. 

    However, China might have made too many risky bets with its Belt and Road Initiative. A large share of China’s BRI loans have gone to poor countries with fragile public finances, such as Pakistan, which are now struggling to repay their debts to China. 

    According to China’s Overseas Lending, a report from the National Bureau of Economic Statistics, 60% of China’s foreign loans are to countries in debt crises. If too many Belt and Road recipients cannot afford to repay their loans, China could be left holding the bag. 

    China is tapping the brakes on its BRI lending. The Nikkei Asia report also cited research that China’s loans to lower-to-middle-income nations dropped 58% between 2018 and 2020.

    Belt and Road Initiative statistics

    The Belt and Road Initiative could be one of the biggest news stories of the 21st Century, but it’s hard to get accurate data about the BRI because the exact investment amounts and details are not always publicly available. 

    The Chinese government has never published a full official list of Belt and Road projects, and generally does not operate with the same standards of transparency as the International Money Fund (IMF) or democratic institutions when disclosing investments and foreign loans. Also, it can be hard to categorize which Chinese business activities are officially part of Belt and Road and which are not. 

    But here are a few general statistics to show the scope and size of the BRI: 

    • When the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) started: 2013 (according to the Council on Foreign Relations)
    • When the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will end: Unknown—China has not announced an official end date 
    • Countries involved in Belt and Road Initiative: 147 (according to the Council on Foreign Relations)
    • Total money spent by China on BRI projects as of 2022: $1 trillion (according to the Wall Street Journal)
    • Total amount expected to be spent by China on BRI projects by end of the initiative (TBD): $8 trillion (according to the Center for Global Development)
    • Money spent by China on Digital Silk Road projects: $79 billion (according to the according to Results and Challenges: 10 years of China-CEEC Cooperation from Eurasia Center of John von Neumann University)
    • Number of satellites in China SatNet’s proposed LEO constellation: 12,992 (according to SpaceNews)
    • Total proposed satellites from China SatNet, OneWeb, Amazon, and Telesat combined: 90,000 (according to SpaceNews)
    • Cost to create a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellation: $5–$10 billion (according to SpaceNews)
    Ben Gran
    Written by
    Ben Gran