BRI’s Globe-spanning Decade
Spectacular gains but win-win remains a distant dream
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
When Xi Jinping, then the Secretary General of the Communist Party of China, announced the ‘One Belt One Road’ project during his visit to Kazakhstan in 2013, it was widely projected as a program of rapid economic development that would benefit all member states.
The project, later called the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), has already led China to spend more than US$1 trillion, with estimates suggesting the total investment to inflate to US$8 trillion in the coming years. It has revolutionized transport and enriched lives in countless states across Africa and Asia and led to the observation that all roads lead to Beijing, as all roads led to Rome two millennia ago.
If spending huge sums of money was the only indicator of its success, BRI has certainly reached, or will reach sooner than later, previously unimaginable limits. It is the biggest multi-nation program the world has ever seen, leading hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers to relocate to member countries to lead Chinese projects. By 2019, more than 3,100 connectivity projects had been signed worldwide.
If geopolitics was another indication of success, the spread of trillions of dollars across 140 countries not only shapes Beijing’s massive economic footprint but also its ability to shape geopolitics. In recent months, its biggest indication came in the form of China’s successful mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While China was able to normalize ties between the two rival states, what makes normalization crucial in the context of global geopolitics is that it happened in a region previously thought to be an exclusive zone of US influence. China’s massive economic presence in the Middle East coupled with its political ties with countries – which also shows an end to Beijing’s policy of non-interference – is gradually displacing the US.
But beyond Beijing’s own economic footprint and geopolitical influence, BRI has found limited success, almost failing to meet even a semblance of a “win-win” situation for a number of host countries. Ironically, China spent more than US$240 billion between 2008 and 2021 to bail out many of its BRI partner countries including Pakistan, one of the largest recipients of BRI funding via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was once seen as the flagship project of the entire BRI.
CPEC has hit many potholes in Pakistan, as Asia Sentinel has extensively reported in the past. As Pakistan’s internal audit reports revealed in 2021, Chinese Independent Power Plants (IPPs) were illegally earning 50 to 70 percent profits annually by charging exorbitant per unit prices for electricity, showing how China’s ‘big capital’ is extracting ‘small capital’ from Pakistani consumers.
Apart from this, CPEC is also a target of armed attacks by Islamist militant groups i.e., the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which blames China for its atrocities in Xinjiang, and Baloch separatist groups, who blame China as the ‘new East India company’ bent upon exploiting Balochistan’s rich natural resources without extending any benefit to the local people.
China is under attack across a number of its BRI countries for similar reasons. Between 2015 and 2017, China’s Ministry of State Security reported 350 serious security incidents threatening Chinese civilians abroad, leading China to only spread its geopolitical influence but also enhance its security footprint in these countries, turning BRI from solely an economic project into as much a security project, if not more.
According to one estimate, dozens of Chinese security companies – which employ former PLA personnel – have thousands of their personnel operating in at least 50 countries in Africa and the Middle East. After a suicide attack on Chinese teachers in Karachi in April 2022, the Chinese pushed for deploying their own security agencies inside Pakistan. While Pakistan officially denied the Chinese request, security experts believe that China already has a substantial, though not overt, security presence in Pakistan, for the overall security situation in Pakistan remains unstable and the Chinese remain interested in protecting their personnel and projects.
But, while China is spending billions to protect its projects, many of them are still causing a lot of damage to the member countries in various ways. For one thing, many, such as the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, have simply failed to yield the revenue that the project initially seemed capable of.
Secondly, many come with environmental cost, as a 2022 study found coastal/maritime projects to be environmentally hazardous. For instance, reports have found that dam projects on/around the Mekong River are putting 1,700 biodiversity spots and 256 species under threat.
Although concerns related to the environmental cost of BRI – which China did not calculate when the project was launched – led Beijing to adopt, in 2019, the BRI International Green Development Coalition developed by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and the United Nations Environment Programme – which pulled together the environmental ministries of 29 BRI-host countries and 85 non-governmental organizations and research institutes – it remains that most of China’s projects are located in countries which rank extremely low on the Environmental Performance Index, showing how this framework is unlikely to remove the environmental cost of the BRI.
Pakistan, for instance, is ranked 176 on a list of 180 countries. Sri Lanka is 132. Indonesia 164. Kenya 148. Sudan is 170. Ethiopia 143. Iran is 133. None of the major BRI recipient countries has any prominent position on this index. In fact, part of the reason why BRI has failed to change this situation meaningfully in the past 10 years or so is that many of China’s environmental guidelines are not binding on the recipient countries.
This is in addition to the fact that China itself continues to invest in projects such as coal-produced energy that are environmentally hazardous. A 1,320-megawatt producing coal-powered power plant was inaugurated in Pakistan’s Thar region earlier this year. Pakistan is a major victim of global warming evident from the last year’s floods, which wiped out more than US$10 billion from the economy.
The environmental loss is in addition to the financial burden that many of the recipient countries are facing. Globally termed a “debt trap,” the BRI has become a major source of credit. Pakistan owes more than 30 percent of its total external debt – around US$130 billion today – to China. In Africa, China has become Africa’s biggest bilateral lender, holding over US$73 billion of Africa’s debt in 2020 and almost $9 billion of private debt. In 2020-21, Angola owed almost US$25 billion to China, with Ethiopia and Zambia owing US$13.5 and US$ 7.4 billion to China, respectively.
While Beijing rejects that its loans facilitate a debt trap, owing such hefty sums of money often costs the recipient countries their autonomy, both domestically and internationally. This loss pays China off not only in terms of its geopolitical footprint across the globe but also in terms of critical support that it is able to elicit from these countries in global forums, such as the UNO.
More than a decade after the launch of BRI, the project is undoubtedly successful for China. But this success comes at the cost of scores of recipient countries. This weakness has led China’s global competitors, such as the US, to develop their own multi-national projects. Whether these projects will have any success in terms of pushing BRI projects out of the recipient countries depends upon the investment the collective West is able to bring.
Until then, the only pressure that China’s BRI is facing is diplomatic criticism of its projects, policies, and closed ways of dealing with the recipient/member countries, with the majority of them still trying to make sense of their own “win-win.”
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He holds a Ph.D. in Politics and International Studies from SOAS, University of London. He is a longtime regular contributor to Asia Sentinel