Written by Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy.

To review the progress of the four-year journey of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road — known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — and to build consensus among participating countries, political leaders, and professionals to sustain the momentum of cooperation, China organised a two-day Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping termed the Forum as a “gathering of great minds” to discuss major cooperation measures going forward, facilitate greater synergy of development strategies, deepen partnership and work for interconnected development; and to advance international cooperation for making the BRI “a project of the century.”

Far from being a game changer, as proposed under the Belt and Road Initiative, many of these projects seem to be economically unsustainable for the host countries.

Leaders of 29 countries, the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO along with President Xi, welcomed and supported the BRI to enhance connectivity between Asia and Europe in a Joint Communique (JC) of the Leaders Roundtable of the BRF. The communique noted that the BRI could “create opportunities amidst challenges and changes” and would also be “open to other regions such as Africa and South America.” The leaders welcomed bilateral, trilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation and reaffirmed their shared commitment to oppose all forms of protectionism in building an open economy. Moreover, the Joint Communique outlined objectives and principles of cooperation, various measures of cooperation, and a vision for the future. If we go by the optics and pronouncements, the Forum turned out to be the outstanding and successful diplomatic event of the year for China.

What were the accomplishments of the Forum? What are the questions which remained unanswered? The following paragraphs discuss the promises the Belt and Road Initiative  (BRI) makes which have fascinated numerous countries around the world and also highlights some inherent contradictions. It argues that the BRI is full of promises and has the potential to become one of the defining strategies of the 21st century. Nevertheless, China needs to address some contradictions and the reality on-the-ground in BRI countries. Indeed, the future of the Asia and Pacific region depends not only upon China’s choice of strategy, but also upon the strategies of other regional countries and major powers in the region.

Accomplishments and Promises

In his keynote speech at BRF, President Xi remarked that the last four years have seen “deepened policy connectivity; enhanced infrastructure connectivity; increased trade connectivity; expanded financial connectivity and strengthened people-to-people connectivity.”  BRF issued a list of deliverables which “includes 76 items comprising more than 270 concrete results in five key areas, namely policy, infrastructure, trade, financial and people-to-people connectivity.” Among many other things, Xi envisioned innovation-driven development and urged BRI countries to “intensify cooperation in frontier areas such as digital economy, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and quantum computing … cloud computing and smart cities” and to build “a digital silk road of the 21st century.” He also advocated a greater role for think tanks and other governmental and non-governmental institutions in achieving inclusive development. Xi outlined five guiding principles – part of a vision to create “a big family of harmonious co-existence” — to generate the momentum necessary to steer BRI toward future successes. Xi also pledged to scale up financial support for the BRI by contributing additional funds through the Silk Road Fund, the China Development Bank, the Export-Import Bank of China, as well as via humanitarian assistance and capacity building programmes. Overall, he outlined China’s vision for BRI, its priorities, and the way forward. Undoubtedly, BRF was an impressive show and the grand diplomatic celebration in Beijing injected some positivity. The BRI, however, must give some serious consideration to the difficulties which lie ahead in implementing this ambitious project.

Contradictions and Pitfalls

First, Xi remarked that “all countries should respect each other’s sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity, each other’s development paths and social systems, and each other’s core interests and major concerns” (emphasis added). Certainly there is a mismatch between China’s vision and actions on the ground. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) overlooks India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity concerns. Similarly, he said that “we should work to resolve hotspot issues through political means, and promote mediation in the spirit of justice” (emphasis added). Are these standards applicable to China as well? China, in her territorial disputes with her neighbours, is assertive and hypersensitive. It consistently intimidates countries on sovereignty issues. More importantly, the Chinese strategy of incrementally increasing its leverage – known as “salami slicing” – needs to be cautiously examined. Beijing pursues its policy to claim and unilaterally change the status-quo of disputed territory and continues to assert its claims, with only an occasional reference to mediation. When Beijing wants to settle its territorial disputes with its neighbours bilaterally, how does it expect other countries to accept such proposals?

Second, there have been much-hyped details regarding various projects, the extent to which these projects exist on the ground is uncertain. Many pre-existing projects have been labelled as pilot projects of this initiative. Even if we ignore this fact, another issue is that many of the planned BRI infrastructure projects are in regions and countries where security is weak and politics unstable. More importantly, the lack of transparency reinforces the view of the importance of geopolitical considerations in China’s most ambitious initiative under Xi. CPEC, Hambantota Port, and Mattala International Airport (the latter two both in Sri Lanka) are some examples and indicators of the fact that China’s decision to invest overseas in such projects is heavily guided by political and strategic considerations. Far from being a game changer, as proposed under the BRI, many of these projects seem to be economically unsustainable for the host countries. Sri Lanka is already in a perpetual debt trap due to this purportedly “win-win” BRI project. Similarly, according to Tom Miller, CPEC is economically unviable and is “actually a form of bribe.” Miller added that China expects to lose 80 percent of its investment in Pakistan and the vision is driven by strategic factors rather than commercial logic. Further, recent revelations of the CPEC ‘masterplan’ in a Pakistani newspaper Dawn presents evidence that the BRI is a key instrument in China’s grand strategy. Due to the lack of economic benefits for Pakistan and its likely debt burden, CPEC was deemed by some as “colonising Pakistan by enriching China.”

Third, the BRI is a strategy to forge a new network centred upon China, organized according to Chinese interests and guided by Chinese values. China is flexing its economic muscle with the expectation of loyalty in return; given the advertised benefits of BRI, it is very difficult for many countries to overlook the initiative. China has the ability to inflict substantive economic damage if country’s refuse to participate. More importantly, China is unwilling to listen to criticism even from its closest friends. How China plans to build a harmonious society when it is unsympathetic to a pluralistic society and cultural diversity is unclear. For example, China’s intolerance of Islamic names, culture, and halal food in Xinjiang highlights an area where Beijing has imposed its Chinese values rather than encouraging cultural diversity and harmony. Similarly, when India raised its legitimate sovereignty concerns regarding CPEC, Beijing not only ignored Delhi’s apprehension but also termed India’s response as a “Cold-War mentality” and “geopolitical game.” A mismatch between Chinese words and actions exposes Beijing’s double standards.

Conclusion

Inconsistencies aside, the BRI has become a defining strategy for economic outreach to China’s partners and is an attempt to create a favourable international environment conducive to China’s continuing development. With full political and financial support from the Chinese government, it has become one of the main tasks in China’s diplomacy and an essential research agenda among Chinese universities and the think tank community. China’s diplomats, institutions, scholars, and media have boarded the BRI train in pursuit of an overarching political objective. The BRI promises significant progress in continental and maritime connectivity – both hard and soft – and its effective implementation will be important to regional stability and global peace. Indeed, the BRI seems one step closer toward a Sino-centric world. China should introduce more transparency to this grand strategy for a greater success. 

Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy is a Research Associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. The views expressed herein are the author’s own. Image credit: CC by umairadeeb/Flickr.

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