The Belt & Road Initiative stems from China’s recognition of its own strategic vulnerability, rather than being aimed at global hegemony. Yet the difficulties of managing big infrastructure projects provided traction for the Trump administration’s ‘battle against evil’ narrative.
Over the past four years, as part of the Washington’s “Beijing as axis of evil” narrative, there have been persistent attacks on China’s Belt & Road Initiative, with repeated claims of “debt-trap” diplomacy intended to build control and influence across the developing world by stealth.
The arrival of the Biden administration in the US hopefully provides a long-overdue opportunity to review this crude and inept narrative fomented by the missionary convictions of Donald Trump’s leadership team, to reconsider the origins, ambitions and impacts of the Belt & Road Plan, and to consider where the plan may go from here.
I had the accidental fortune to be on the ground floor of initial Chinese thinking about the Belt & Road. It began with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) back in 2009-10, where consensus emerged that one of the primary obstacles to economic progress in the region was the poverty of infrastructure.
The Asian Development Bank, and consultants like McKinsey, quickly provided numbers reflecting the awesome scale of the need: US$8 trillion up to 2020, a figure since updated into US$26 trillion up to 2030.
While bringing vital focus onto the urgent need to build infrastructure, the sheer size of the investment challenge intimidated everyone though I think today, in the wake of the multitrillion-dollar damage done by the global pandemic, and President Joe Biden’s US$1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, these numbers no longer seem so astronomical.
The analysis clearly struck a chord with Beijing, given that China’s own massive efforts to build infrastructure – roads, railways, ports, mass transit systems, power generation and 5G telecoms have quite reasonably been credited with driving much of the country’s growth in recent decades.
As the Chinese looked increasingly outward, at strengthening trade and economic links with the world, protecting their supply chains, and facilitating access to urgently-needed commodities sourced in poor and unstable developing economies across the world, so the need to encourage infrastructure-building internationally became obvious.
Strategic imperatives also loomed large. The post-2001 paranoia (shared with the West) about the global terrorist threat driven by radical Islamic movements nestled in the poor and neglected economies to China’s west also influenced Beijing.
A quick glimpse of a world map to China’s west explains why. Better to build infrastructure that facilitates jobs, livelihoods and economic growth in those long-ignored countries stretching from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan across to Azerbaijan and the border with Turkey, than to watch China’s remote western reaches destabilised by Islamic State, the Taliban and other radical militant groups.
So the seeds of Belt & Road Initiative were sown, not aimed at global hegemony or covert extension of political influence, but out of a defensive recognition of China’s own strategic vulnerability, and its critical (and growing) reliance on food, oil and minerals coming from poor, and often unstable countries across Asia, Africa and South America.
Jin Liqun, head of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), founded in 2016, expressed well Beijing’s view: “The Chinese experience illustrates that infrastructure investment paves the way for broad-based economic social development, and poverty alleviation comes as a natural consequence of that.”
He saw the AIIB as “an opportunity for China to show it can work with other countries and to [better] international practice not just Western practice so people can be convinced China is a force for peace and prosperity in the world”.
The scale of Beijing’s ambition, coupled with the infamous difficulties of managing big infrastructure projects in poor, developing economies that are often corrupt and politically unstable, has nevertheless led to reputation-sapping difficulties for example over Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, or Malaysia’s East Coast Rail Link, or the chronically loss-making Addis Ababa-to-Djibouti rail line.
Complaints that some projects were ill-thought-out, got caught up in local corruption, had opaque financing arrangements and often involved a tangle of different agencies, provided traction for the Trump administration’s Manichaean “battle against evil” narrative, and its allegations that Beijing has been deliberately, and covertly, building control over a number of economies.
Beijing would have done well to take more counsel from institutions like the World Bank, which bears many battle scars from lessons learned over decades of structuring and financing big infrastructure projects across the developing world.
Whatever the complaints and mistakes, there can today be no disputing the global significance and long-term importance of the Belt & Road Initiative, and of China’s role in improving infrastructure worldwide.
Consultants Refinitiv recently calculated that by by mid-2020, around 3,400 projects more than half directly under the Belt & Road Initiative, the others supported by China worth about US$4 trillion were under way in 139 Belt & Road Economies.
And as Deborah Brautigam and colleagues at Johns Hopkins and the China-Africa Research Initiative in the US have clearly shown in their examination of many Belt & Road Projects, the Chinese debt-trap conspiracy thesis does not stand up to scrutiny. She has provided numerous examples of Chinese willingness to renegotiate financing terms, and to provide debt relief and write-offs.
In a 2020 article, she wrote that “the drumbeat of alarm” about Chinese banks’ funding of infrastructure across the Belt & Road and beyond is “overblown”. She added that in developing countries, “a large number of people have favourable opinions of China as an economic model and consider China an attractive partner for their development”.
Among those attractions is China’s studied reluctance to get in any way involved in a country’s domestic policies.
Pradumna Rana at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and Ji Xianbai at Renmin University in Beijing have, in a recent book surveying 26 of the Belt & Road Economies, confirmed Johns Hopkins’ conclusion: 41.6 percent of survey respondents believed the Belt & Road Initiative was of net benefit to their countries. They find that “the debt trap diplomacy thesis is more a myth than a reality”.
The reality is that the need for new investment in infrastructure is as huge and as urgent as ever. China’s contribution has been critical, whatever the mistakes made and lessons learned over the past eight years.
Big infrastructure projects will always present unique challenges, and our response should not be to berate China, but to help it improve its practices, and to join it in funding infrastructure development.
As President Biden prepares his own multi-trillion dollar US infrastructure improvement plan, let us hope we have heard the last of “debt-trap” diplomacy.