China’s President Xi Jinping promises that his Belt and Road Initiative, a sweeping vision to put China at the center of the global economy through new infrastructure, trade deals and other connections, was a “plan in the sunshine.”
But make no mistake, the BRI’s outlook is darkening. Critics — including some of Beijing’s actual and potential partners — are raising concerns about transparency, debt sustainability and usefulness, as well as questioning China’s underlying strategic aims.
Blowback from the BRI’s aggressive expansion can be seen in Malaysia’s recent general election. The winner, Mahathir Mohamad, criticized Chinese projects for raising Malaysia’s debt without delivering local benefits. He has promised to reexamine his predecessor’s deals and renegotiate them if necessary. That will be difficult in practice, but the election suggests that skepticism of the BRI is spreading.
The questions about Beijing’s intentions are not new, but recent developments suggest they are deepening in several Western capitals as well. Skepticism about the BRI is also taking hold in international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Western powers are still working on an effective response. If they are smart, they will resist the temptation to reject the BRI wholesale and focus instead on opposing specific projects and troublesome practices while advancing — and funding — cooperative infrastructure schemes of their own.
Last month, Handlesblatt reported that 27 of 28 national European Union ambassadors to Beijing signed a report noting