Is it too late to salvage something good from Beijing’s monumental development project?by Isabel Hilton / April 19, 2019 / Leave a comment
Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced the Belt and Road project in 2013; in May 2017, he invited the world to Beijing for the first BRI summit; in October of that year, the BRI was enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution, and in a few days, Xi will host the second BRI conference. The trillion dollar development project envisages new networks of transport and energy corridors, digital infrastructure, ports and industrial parks from which all roads will lead to China. The number of countries involved, China says, is now 123.
According to the official narrative, the project will “promote the economic prosperity of the countries along the Belt and Road, promote regional economic cooperation, strengthen exchanges and mutual learning between civilisations, and promote world peace and development,” helping to build a “shared future for humanity.”
Who could possibly object? Quite a few people, it turns out: at that first Belt and Road Forum in 2017, EU member states declined to sign Beijing’s prepared statement of support; a year later, all EU ambassadors to China with the exception of Hungary, signed a letter highly critical of a project designed to favour Chinese interests at the expense of partners, competitors and sustainability. In early April this year, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, Federica Mogherini, published a highly critical report on China’s relationship with the EU that described Beijing as both a partner and a strategic competitor, followed by the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which, in a review of Britain’s relationship with China, supported Theresa May’s refusal to give BRI a blank cheque and reaffirmed concerns about its lack of transparency, its poor risk assessment, its creation of unsustainable debt in partner countries and the fact that the benefits overwhelmingly accrue to Chinese operators.
To that list, we might add an even more serious charge: the projects that Chinese banks and state-owned enterprises have been building, in particular a series of new coal fired power stations in third countries, threaten global efforts to combat climate change, which China is pledged to support. The Trump administration’s view, meanwhile, is so toxic that US officials have been strong-arming multilateral institutions to discourage any form of cooperation.
BRI critics do not deny the need for investment: the Asian Development Bank puts the infrastructure investment gap in Asia…