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One Belt, One Road, One Big Mistake

CPEC Project

Source: Foreign Policy
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The headlines coming out of this year’s APEC conference in Papua New Guinea focused on the conflict between America and China that kept the forum from issuing a joint communiqué. Less noticed were two short memorandums released on the sidelines of the conference by the island nations of Vanuatu and Tonga. In return for renegotiating existing debt, both agreed to become the newest participants—following other Pacific nations like Papua New Guinea and Fiji—in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign-policy venture, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

As Xi’s trillion-dollar development strategy has snaked away from the Eurasian heartland and into the South Pacific, western Africa, and Latin America, concern has grown. Many Americans fear that the Belt and Road Initiative is an extension of efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to undermine the security and economic architecture of the international order. China’s growing largesse, they worry, comes largely at the expense of international institutions and American influence.

This angst lies behind another announcement made at last month’s APEC gathering: Australia, Japan, and the United States declared that they had formed their own trilateral investment initiative to help meet infrastructure needs in the Indo-Pacific. For some this is not enough: In its most recent report to the United States Congress, the bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission recommended that Congress create an additional fund “to provide additional bilateral assistance for countries that are a target of or vulnerable to Chinese economic or diplomatic pressure.”

This is the wrong response to the Belt and Road Initiative. Ignore the hype: For the Chinese, this initiative has been a strategic blunder. By buying into the flawed idea that barrels of money are all that is needed to solve complex geopolitical problems, China has committed a colossal error. Xi’s dictatorship makes it almost impossible for the country to admit this mistake or abandon his pet project. The United States and its allies gain nothing from making China’s blunders their own.

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In Xi’s speeches, the phrase most closely associated with the Belt and Road Initiative is “community of common destiny.” Xi’s use of this term is meant to link the BRI to the deeper purpose party leaders have articulated for the CCP over the last three decades. China’s leaders believe that not only is it their “historic mission” to bring about China’s “national rejuvenation” as the world’s most prestigious power, but that China has a unique role to play in the development of “political civilization” writ large.

It is the Chinese, Xi maintains (as Hu and Jiang did before him), who have adapted socialism to modern conditions, and in so doing have created a unique Chinese answer to “the problems facing mankind.” Though this answer began in China, Xi is clear that the time has come for “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach” to benefit those outside of China. The Belt and Road Initiative is intended to do just that. By using the Chinese model of socialism to develop the world’s poorer regions, the initiative justifies Xi’s grandiose claims about the party’s historic mission on the international stage.

To match these lofty aims, Chinese academics and policy analysts at prestigious party think tanks have articulated more down-to-earth goals for the initiative. According to them, the BRI promises to integrate China’s internal markets with those of its neighbours. Doing so will bring its neighbours closer to China geopolitically and bring stability to the region. By increasing economic activity in China’s border regions, such as Xinjiang and Tibet, the Belt and Road Initiative will lessen the appeal that separatist ideology might have to the residents. Another projected benefit is the energy security that will come through the construction of BRI-funded transport routes. Finally, by articulating and then following through on an initiative that puts common development over power politics, China will gain an advantage over other major countries (read: Japan and the United States) who present the world as a black-and-white competition for hegemony. The community of common destiny, these analysts have claimed, is a community that will immensely benefit China.

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As the Belt and Road Initiative is only five years old (and many of its main members have been involved for a far shorter time) its full results cannot yet be judged. However, a preliminary assessment can be offered for BRI projects in South and Southeast Asia, the region described by Chinese leaders as the “main axis” of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is here that BRI investment is strongest and has been around longest. The picture is not promising. The hundreds of billions spent in these countries has not produced returns for investors, nor political returns for the party. Whether Chinese leaders actually seek a financial return from the Belt and Road Initiative has always been questionable—the sovereign debt of 27 BRI countries is regarded as “junk” by the three main ratings agencies, while another 14 have no rating at all.

Investment decisions often seem to be driven by geopolitical needs instead of sound financial sense. In South and Southeast Asia expensive port development is an excellent case study. A 2016 CSIS report judged that none of the Indian Ocean port projects funded through the BRI have much hope of financial success. They were likely prioritized for their geopolitical utility. Projects less clearly connected to China’s security needs have more difficulty getting off the ground: the research firm RWR Advisory Group notes that 270 BRI infrastructure projects in the region (or 32 per cent of the total value of the whole) have been put on hold because of problems with practicality or financial viability. There is a vast gap between what the Chinese have declared they will spend and what they have actually spent.

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There is also a gap between how BRI projects are supposed to be chosen and how they actually have been selected. Xi and other party leaders have characterized BRI investment in Eurasia as following along defined “economic corridors” that would directly connect China to markets and peoples in other parts of the continent. By these means the party hopes to channel capital into areas where it will have the largest long-term benefit and will make cumulative infrastructure improvements possible.

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