In 2013, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China announced an ambitious initiative, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or in Chinese 一带一路 (One Belt, One Road). The initiative is a massive infrastructure project, frequently compared to the United States’s Marshall Plan, and somewhat follows along what was once the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes that connected China as far west as Europe and Africa. The project has two components, the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. Despite naming these two “routes,” China has not officially released a list of participating countries or projects, nor has it clearly mapped out these official paths (Mauk, 2019). However, over sixty countries have agreed to participate in BRI projects; these countries combined account for two-thirds of the world’s population, making the initiative’s reach and impact staggering. The largest of these projects is estimated to be a $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (Chatzky & McBride, 2020). Types of infrastructure projects include railways, telecommunication centers, ports, highways, and pipelines (Bradsher, 2020).
As projects are funded through low-interest loans, and not grant money, some analysts have determined that BRI is predatory, calling it “debt trap diplomacy” (Glosserman, 2020). The Center for Global Development identified countries particularly at risk for falling into the “debt trap,” which are Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Djibouti, Montenegro, Laos, the Maldives, and Mongolia, leading to increased worries about China’s projects (Glosserman, 2020). Critics believe that China is lending to developing countries in an unsustainable manner, which will give China the opportunity to seize assets or otherwise exert disproportionate influence when they inevitably default on their loans (Jones & Hameiri, 2020). This became the case in Sri Lanka, where China was given a 99-year lease on Port Hambantota after Sri Lanka defaulted on this BRI project. However, individual think tank reports by the United Kingdom’s Chatham House and Australia’s Lowy Institute found little evidence to support that China has been using this tactic, determining that the Port Hambantota situation is exceptional (Glosserman, 2020).
While the theory that China is outright using debt to exert influence is still controversial, there is little doubt that China is using this initiative to spread influence in more subtle ways. These infrastructure projects are a classic example of soft power, using attraction rather than force to gain influence. With the BRI, China aims to cement itself as a regional, and even global, superpower, partially through strengthening diplomatic ties and winning favor by developing countries with weaker economies. Loans from Western countries typically require certain conditions, such as a certain threshold of human rights guarantees and low levels of corruption. Chinese loans do not come with such stipulations, making them an attractive alternative (Larmer, 2017).
These development projects also have more tangible benefits for China than just improved relations. Analysts see the BRI as an attempt to escape the middle-income trap, an observed phenomenon in which countries struggle to maintain growth after quality of life and wages improve (Chatzky & McBride, 2020). The development projects use Chinese construction firms, goods, and laborers, capitalizing on the opportunity provided by new markets as China’s domestic demand for machinery, steel, and cement wanes (Perlez & Huang, 2017). Additionally, these projects secure Central Asian and Middle Eastern energy supplies for China (Chatzky & McBride, 2020), as well as shorten oil and commodity routes by 90% (Djankov et al., 2016).
Other countries remain skeptical of China’s geopolitical and economic ambitions. One of the largest critics of the BRI is the United States, which had competing development interests in Central and South Asia under the Obama administration, motivated largely by the need for Afghanistan to require less assistance. In fact, the BRI was launched partially in response to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a cornerstone to Obama’s “pivot to Asia.” The Trump administration has withdrawn the United States from this agreement, yet has launched its own counter to the BRI, called the BUILD Act (Chatzky & McBride, 2020).
With China implementing projects in the Balkans, such as financing the construction of a metro system in Serbia (Bradsher, 2020), there is some concern in the European Union that China is gaining influence in its own backyard, especially in states that are candidates to accede to the Union. However, some European States, namely Italy, have agreed to partnerships on some BRI projects (Chatzky & McBride, 2020).
Regionally, China has also faced some pushback. India’s Ministry of External Affairs released a statement criticizing the BRI for lack of transparency and infringement upon sovereignty. India’s largest issue is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through territory disputed between India and Pakistan (Ayres, 2017). Japan is also suspicious of China and has pledged funds for development throughout Asia as a response (Chatzky & McBride, 2020).
Aside from concerns from individual countries regarding clashing national interests, there is an overarching worry about the environmental impacts from these projects. The Institute of International Finance released a report concluding that “85 percent of Belt and Road projects involved high emissions of greenhouse gases linked to climate change” (Bradsher, 2020).
China maintains that the BRI provides “win-win” development and has sought to expand the initiative with offshoot programs (Mauk, 2019). Of the most promising are the Digital Silk Road, launched in 2015, and the Health Silk Road, launched in 2017. 20% of BRI infrastructure projects have been impacted by COVID-19, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. However, these two initiatives, which respectively seek to develop information technology and cooperate with regional partners on health projects, could be promising avenues of expansion following the pandemic’s exposure of gaps in the technology and health sectors (Lee, 2020). It is possible that the world will see China focus less on the infrastructure projects that have dominated its past seven years of foreign policy, and shift its attention to newer “Silk Roads.”
Author: Abigail Stoffer
Photo Source: Belt and Road Initiative (https://www.beltroad-initiative.com/belt-and-road/).
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