Five years ago, Chinese premier Xi Jinping announced one of his most ambitious plans ever—the Belt & Road Initiative, aimed at connecting Asia, Africa and Europe through trade. Belt & Road or yi dai yi lu is a 21st century Silk Road made up of a layer of belts (corridors on land) and roads (maritime shipping lanes) between China and atleast 65 other nations, collectively amounting to 30% of global GDP, 62% of the population and 75% of known energy reserves.
“The most significant merit of this initiative is that it aims at developing infrastructure at a continental and global scale. Infrastructure is a prerequisite for development and it has a multiple effect at many levels,” said Florin Bonciu, an economist with the Institute for World Economy of the Romanian Academy, at a two-day academic round-table entitled Challenges of adjusting to a changing global economy in the 21st century.
The scope of this mega initiative, expected to cost $1 trillion, is still taking shape. According to The Guardian, a particular report claims that China alone has spent $210 billion on the Belt & Road Initiative. Fitch Ratings has reported that nearly $900 billion projects are already underway or being planned. Several scholars, academicians and think-tanks believe China is setting the precedent as a world economic powerhouse by enabling infrastructure growth; and consequently economic upliftment in emerging nations and poorer nations, especially in Central Asia.
But five years in, the question is—how is this going to pan out for nearly half the world’s economies and most importantly, for China?
Why is the BRI key to China?
The Belt & Road initiative is one of the most ambitious efforts to promote large-scale regional cooperation and connectivity on a trans-continental scale. The scope of this regional cooperation can drastically improve connectity, reduce cost of trade, lead to higher cross-border trade and overall, improve regional growth. The improvement of goods capacity and supporting railway infrastructure could drastically cut down travel time. World Bank estimates that while rail transport is expected to remain costlier than maritime for these routes, the time and cost reduction can have a significant impact on certain goods, and overall international trade.
What China is looking to capitalise through the Belt & Road Initiative will change the way international trade will take place in the years to come. Ever since Donald Trump became president of the USA, fund flow into Africa has significantly reduced. Even US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross has pointed out that USA’s loss in Africa will be China’s gain. And China is providing first to Africa what they desperately need—connectivity. For instance, the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Rail is one of Kenya’s largest infrastructure projects to date; China is also involved in building railway projects in Ethiopia and Zambia as well.
Capitalising on emerging economies is one of China’s strategies to inch closer to global dominance, and the Belt & Road initiative echoes this very thought. Jinping’s roadmap lays out an elaborate plan for the betterment of all the countries involved. Even Eastern Europe appears to be warming up to the initiative, as it is poised to provide metals, minerals and agricultural products. This is following reports of China investing nearly $300 billion in projects in the region.
Moreover, the nations listed on China’s roadmap are set to reap major benefits, thanks to this mega initiative. According to the World Bank, poverty ratios of BRI nations are still high ($1.90/day is the global poverty line average)—such as 25% in Kenya, 23% in Uzbekistan and Djibouti, and 21% in Laos. If BRI projects here are successful, they stand to benefit a large number of poor people in these nations.
Is BRI too ambitious?
This is the burning question on the minds of many diplomats and think-tanks alike. The extent of this initiative cannot be undermined—BRI can very well one of the most ambitious multi-nation project since the Marshall Plan that resurrected Europe after World War II. However, even China cannot deny the extent of risks and roadblocks a plan like this can endure, if it already isn’t.
A major hiccup is policy involving cross-border trade, customs procedures and FDI. For instance, in Central Asian nations, it can take up to 50 days to comply with import procedures, while it takes less than 7 days for G7 countries. Weak governance is smaller, less powerful nations can have an adverse impact on international infrastructure projects, requiring the intervention and supervising of foreign organizations constantly. This may be effective but will also cause significant delays. Another concern predominantly with BRI nations is the over-expansion of debt levels for projects. For instance, the Lao PDR section of the Singapore- Kunming Railway is an estimated $6 billion—nearly 40% of Laotian GDP in 2016. Overall, BRI projects could steeply push debt ratios against GDP ratios, making the countries face immense financial risk.
Mindful of these concerns among others, China has admitted that they are prepared to make some adjustments to their roadmap. Wang Jun, deputy director of the Department of Information at the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges, told the Global Times that it was “normal and understandable that development focus can change at different stages in different countries, especially with changes in government. So, China can also make some strategic adjustments when cooperating with these countries.”
These remarks came in the backdrop of opposition within the Pak government on the financing of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and increasing pushback from Myanmar and Malaysia. Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamed has suspended Chinese-funded projects worth $26 billion and Myanmar is also negotiating a significant scale-back of a China-funded port project in the Bay of Bengal, to avoid shouldering needless debt.
As Dr, Merriden Varrall, non-resident fellow at Lowy Institute writes, the continued obsession with maintaining legitimacy by means of the two key pillars—national pride and material well-being—are still at the core of Chinese public policy, including its foreign policy. The BRI is undoubtedly a crown jewel for China now, and Premier Jinping will try everything possible to make it a success.