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China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Towering Ambition, Shallow Foundation


The BRI project is not transparent, has no provisions to safeguard the environment, is a unilateral initiative decided solely by China, and has a confidentiality clause that hides the true nature of the contract and one that largely reflects economic practices. beijing predators

Chinese President Xi Jinping. AP file

Chinese President Xi Jinping is an ambitious dreamer. Since assuming the coveted political position in China, he has undertaken massive exercises to make the country an undisputed world leader and has made himself the supreme emperor, but not in nomenclature, by concentrating enormous power between his own hands.

In the very near future, President Xi will most likely win a third term, while his rivals, competitors and opponents at home will continue to spend time in jail or stay away altogether.

One of its mega-projects aimed at carving out large parts of the world to maintain Chinese hegemony over them is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched about nine years ago. This was part of the strategy to make China the center of a mini-world, a hub with multiple spokes spread around South and Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Africa and then Europe. Slowly, the area under BRI expanded to also include parts of Latin America.

Xi spoke of a future with a “common destiny” with all those more than a hundred countries taking Chinese loans, technology, managers, engineers and workers to develop great infrastructure in their respective countries to maintain connectivity with China – the leader who would determine and define all the elements that would constitute the “common destiny” for prosperity.

The idea of ​​the belt, which would connect the countries through which the ancient Silk Road passed, was first discussed in Kazakhstan and the concept of the road, which would connect the countries through the maritime space, was was enunciated in Indonesia by the president himself in 2013. Four years later, the leaders of some sixty countries were invited to Beijing to attend a major event where the “Belt and Road” initiative was announced by Xi with great pomp and ceremony.

While even the United States, several European countries and Japan sent representatives, the only guest who refused to attend this event or even endorse the BRI idea was India. Within a few years, a large number of countries have signed MoUs with China and expressed their willingness to join the BRI project. India’s neighbours, such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Maldives, also seemed enchanted by the promised “common destiny”. Pakistan’s enthusiasm to be part of the BRI was quite evident, even as Beijing pledged to invest around $60 billion to build “world-class” infrastructure there.

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All of this happened at a time when the international community witnessed the only superpower stuck in the quagmire of Afghanistan, and the budding superpower China was the envy of all countries because of its unprecedented economic success. in world history. Chinese analysts appeared almost certain of the United States’ waning influence in world affairs and the way the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, the domestic polarization of American society and the country’s lackluster performance in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic have further boosted Chinese confidence. that Chinese hegemony would be the next thing to come.

However, a series of other developments in recent years seem to have piqued the Chinese dream and brought considerable challenges to the BRI project. First, the tariff war initiated by the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration has had a direct impact on the Chinese economy. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only damaged China’s image in the world, but also disrupted the supply chain and thus China’s economic growth. Third, China’s military offensive moves in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Sino-Indian border spelled the end of widespread publicity of “China’s peaceful rise.” Fourth, the assault on democratic governance in Hong Kong, the harsh treatment meted out to the Uyghur community in Xinjiang province, threats of military maneuvers against Taiwan, and China’s approach to the Taliban after the withdrawal of the NATO also revealed the true nature of the Chinese government which proposes to work for a “common destiny” with other countries.

The most telling challenge to the BRI concept itself, of course, has been its unproductive outcome in some countries, such as Sri Lanka which fell into a “debt trap” and was forced to give China a lease of 99 years a high-level port in Hambantota built under the BRI project. Many economists have held the BIS partly responsible for the current economic turmoil and civil unrest in Sri Lanka.

The BRI project is not transparent, has no provisions to safeguard the environment, is a unilateral initiative decided solely by China, and has a confidentiality clause that hides the true nature of the contract and one that largely reflects economic practices. Beijing predators.

A large number of developing countries have been prematurely charmed by the BRI project in hopes of securing capital assistance for infrastructure development with few strings attached. The visible consequences of BRI projects in a number of countries seem to have a cascading effect leading to belated awareness of the dangers associated with such projects. Nepal has not been able to implement a single BRI project years after signing the agreement. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya, Nigeria and several Eastern European countries have witnessed local resistance to Chinese plans. The murder of Chinese nationals working in BRI projects in Pakistan surprised everyone, including the Chinese government. The economic fallout from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have also erected obstacles to the steady implementation of BRI projects.

It is a welcome development that developing countries are slowly realizing why India stayed out of the BRI which had little respect for the principle of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Some governments in the developing world have also discovered how Chinese embassies in their respective countries seek to influence local decision-making.

Significantly, the Build Back Better (B3) project of the Group of Seven (G-7) advanced industrial economies seeking to raise over $40 trillion to provide an alternative to China’s BRI projects, the “Global Gateway” proposal from the European Union with more than 300 billion euros to compete with Chinese BRI projects; and the Japan-India collaboration to build an “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor” have the potential to benefit developing countries by giving them options to choose transparent, environmentally friendly and rules-based projects so that they cannot be deceived by opaque solutions. and predatory proposals.

What is needed, however, are not just big plans, but the determination to implement them so that the rules-based global order and infrastructure development are sustainable and affordable for a myriad of developing countries. development.

The author is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The opinions expressed are personal.

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