In 2013 the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping announced a grand economic and infrastructure project, now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It was aimed to benefit the world economically by connecting consumers to markets and helping improve the movement of goods and services. It is no surprise that Xi called the BRI the “project of the century.” After those announcements, around 70 countries were to become part of this initiative.
The total funding of the project is still not clear and there are estimates that it could be anywhere from around US$1 trillion to $8 trillion. After its announcement, a large number of countries showed great excitement about being part of the initiative, expecting development for their economies. China has announced a number of infrastructure projects under the BRI banner and a great amount of money has been invested. However, the situation now is quite different from when the plan was announced.
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The most recent aspect under debate is with regard to the increasing “debt trap.” A large number of smaller countries in South Asia, Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia had welcomed the Chinese investments promised under the BRI with the hope of developing their domestic economies and capabilities. The Chinese investments in the proposed infrastructure of the concerned countries were welcome as they would provide them with a base to develop their domestic markets and also in the movement of goods and services.
But in the past several months, the number of countries expressing concern with regard to how Chinese investments under the BRI are adding to the debt of smaller partners has been on the rise. What is worrying these countries is that China will use the inability of the host countries to pay back the debt as an excuse to gain increased control of major strategic and economic posts. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has even expressed concerns over new form of colonialism.
The first most prominent apparent victim of consistent Chinese investment into infrastructure projects has been Sri Lanka. Last December, Colombo was forced to lease out its Hambantota Port and land around the port to a Chinese shipping company for 99 years. And last month, Malaysia announced that it would not be going ahead with three major Chinese projects costing around $20 billion.
Similar voices of concern are being expressed in other countries as well, most prominently Pakistan, China’s all-weather friend. China has also started to feel the pressure from delays in projected plans in Indonesia, Laos, Kazakhstan and Bangladesh. These instances have made it clear that there is a need for greater transparency vis-à-vis the Chinese investments under the overall BRI project.
It is not only the economic burden that is a concern for the partner countries, but the added presence of the Chinese military. There is a growing apprehension that with the BRI there will be an increase in Chinese military presence supporting and safeguarding the economic investments. The last two Chinese defense white papers have been quite open about the extended use of Chinese military personnel to protect economic concerns overseas.
The increasing attacks on Chinese engineers and workers in Pakistan for projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are a major example as well as a cause of concern for Beijing. One cannot ignore the fact that China will be keen to protect its overseas investments, and thus it was no surprise that the Chinese government decided to adopt its first military base at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. According to the latest reports, China is also involved in the construction of a military base in Badakhshan province in Afghanistan. This coupled with Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar on the southwest coast of Balochistan, Pakistan, will provide China with a very strong military presence in South Asia as well.
The BRI was perceived by some as an alternative to the development model promoted by the West. However, the teething problems the BRI faces have raised a number of questions about it actually serving as an alternative and also being functional. The major drawback for the BRI is the idea of “China’s rise” that follows it.
China has been flexing its muscles for power and influence in the global order and has become a major security concern for the countries in its neighborhood. In addition, most of the countries trading with China have been facing trade deficits, with no solution in sight. When these concerns are coupled with the huge amount of money the Chinese want to invest in smaller countries, their sovereignty concerns get magnified. Existing territorial and border disputes further complicate the situation. It is because of these that China faces a major trust deficit, which will be a major hurdle against the success of the BRI.
In addition to this, the Chinese economic slowdown has forced Beijing government to rethink the pace of investment. Thus it is no surprise that though India was the most vocal critic of the BRI, Beijing has renewed its efforts to woo New Delhi. Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Jun said in a statement recently, “Historically, India was an important country on the ancient Silk Road and it is fair to say that India was a natural partner in the ancient [Silk Road] and [is one] in the Belt and Road Initiative.”
China thinks that getting India on board may ease some of the major concerns and help the future functioning of the BRI. India is generally regarded as a benign country with a stronger soft-power appeal when compared with China. Given the current global financial concerns, China will be happy to have India on board, maybe as a partner, given the potential for the Indian economy.
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Gunjan Singh is a Research Associate at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), New Delhi.