Highlighting environmental concerns, a new study in China argues that the majority of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment should go to countries in southern and southeast Asia due to fewer risks that threaten economic development.
Professor Fang Chuanglin, a senior adviser to the Chinese government with a multidisciplinary research institute in Beijing asserted that some countries like Iran and Afghanistan were poor and in desperate need of economic development, however, their fragile environment could collapse in rapid growth, The Star reported.
According to the study led by Prof Fang, there were also many underdeveloped countries along the sea route through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, however, their environmental footprints remained much smaller.
This study comes at a time when China has sought to step up cooperation with Central Asian countries on security issues amid fears of a resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan and subsequent threat to its BRI infrastructure projects in the region.
The project has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Beijing quietly scaling back the project, particularly in the emerging markets of Africa, due to banks being over-extended and loans not being repaid on time.
Of late, Beijing has been criticised for financing economically unviable projects, leaving the home countries with heavy debt. According to Fang, to China, a bigger concern should be the environmental issue.
Fang and colleagues in a paper published in the journal Science Bulletin this month said infrastructure projects such as power plants, railways and factories would leave a large footprint on the local environment.
"Water shortages, urban expansion, agricultural waste and carbon emissions have already become serious problems in some countries," the study said, adding that an environmental crisis could lead to social upheaval that puts infrastructure and investment at risk.
According to the researchers, several countries had an "environmental deficit" that decision-makers in Beijing must factor in when considering an investment.
Fang and colleagues calculated the environmental deficit of 65 countries and labelled 21 countries, mostly on the overland belt, as "risk prevention zones" where "ecological and environmental risks need to be strictly guarded against" because their environmental deficit was extremely high.
Besides the environmental deficit, the BRI not only grants unfair advantages to Chinese companies, but the infrastructure projects Beijing exports are fueled by hydrocarbons, which acts as a detrimental factor in tackling climate change, Asia Times reported.
The project, touted by President Xi Jinping as the 'project of the century', forces several countries to adopt China's aggressive and environmentally insensitive approach to state-building.
A lingering question thus remains on whether public criticism and attention on how the BRI is financed will curtail China's questionable practices and usher in a new approach to debt sustainability