Workers on the Belt and Road Initiative in Montenegro
China’s ambition has been ubiquitous from the very roots of the nation. From the construction of the 13,000 mile long Great Wall over several dynasties, to the expansion of the Silk Road across Eurasia, China is perhaps the first that comes to mind for colossal infrastructure projects. And today, there is yet another project from the nation that gleams with aspiration and sprawls in magnitude: The Belt and Road Initiative. While the so-called New Silk Road seeks to allocate massive grants to developing nations in order to build critical infrastructure, fears of China’s expanding hegemony and the potential for debt traps are on the rise. But despite such fears propagated by the U.S and other Western countries, these nations can’t seem to offer struggling governments a more appealing alternative.
Often referred to as the New Silk Road, the BRI was announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, presented as a “break in the bottleneck of Asian connectivity”. His vision entailed a massive network of energy, border, and transportation infrastructure that would stretch across Eurasia. The original Silk Road was nearly 4,000 miles long, spanning across Central and South Asia and finally bridging the gap between Europe and East Asia. It stimulated an enormous amount of intercontinental trade and established the Chinese Empire as a global superpower. The BRI today might echo the success and the size of its ancient predecessor, and President Xi Jinping’s vision is already starting to come to fruition.
The Belt and Road Initiative is divided into two parts that fits their names: the Silk Road Economic Belt that would cross land, and the Maritime Silk Road that would span the Indian and Mediterranean oceans. The Council of Foreign Relations reports that as of this month, more than 60 countries – accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population – have signed on to these facets of the Belt and Road Initiative or shown an interest in doing so. Morgan Stanley furthers that China’s overall expenses throughout the completion of the BRI could reach $1.3 trillion by 2027. Just one of the major projects, which connected China to Pakistan’s Gwadar port, saw an investment of $68 billion dollars. In total, China has already spent $200 billion dollars in expenses to such efforts.
But what is the motive behind China’s massive verve to build from the ground up in other nations? Is it ultimately a much needed move from the Chinese government towards global stability? Or do the ulterior motives, the secondary intentions, undermine this cause? These are questions that have various answers depending on who responds to them.
Many answer yes to the first question. While trade between the U.S and China has been damaged by the continuation of the trade war, total trade between countries that cooperate with the BRI and China exceeds 6 trillion dollars total. In addition, Chinese companies have reportedly generated over $2 billion in tax revenue and created nearly 300,000 jobs for the host populations. This is not to mention the infrastructure improvements, which range from the implementation of extensive border security measures to the development of a stable power grid.
Jinping has regularly cited these benefits as a clear incentive to join the BRI. China has already built a railway connecting it to Finland, a natural gas pipeline linking it to Russia, and plans to create a “Polar Silk Road”, a section that would tie together the Arctic region and its valuable resources with Asia. All the while, China asserts that the BRI includes comprehensive green policies that will minimize any environmental damage caused by its projects.
But the U.S and other countries may answer yes to the second question. Because of the aforementioned trade war between the United States and China, both countries are losing billions of dollars. And while the first step towards deescalation was reached in January, there has yet to be a path towards repealing the devastating sanctions and tariffs from both sides. As a result, both superpowers have been looking to diversify their economies and reduce their dependence on each other. And in the case of China, the Belt and Road Initiative is the perfect chance to do so; not only because it can reinvigorate trade with the Western world and tap into markets in underdeveloped countries, but also because it can stop the U.S from doing the same and expanding its reach in global politics. The US has already recognized and worked against this move; in November of 2019 the Trump administration announced that it would invest and trade more in Asia to counter China’s growing influence. But the United States and some European nations are also pointing to the BRI representing debt-trap diplomacy at its core. By investing a lot of money into other countries, China would increase their dependence on the funds and demand returns far too soon. In addition, it could attempt to globalize the renminbi currency throughout the member countries to compete with the US dollar and consolidate their economic power. Xi Jinping addressed these potential issues when he stated last year that the BRI would have comprehensive “debt frameworks” to set a reasonable return policy on China’s investments. But some of the concerns have already materialized. Malaysia, for instance, cancelled a BRI funded project due to widespread corruption. And in Montenegro, the BRI has dramatically expanded the national debt. And perhaps the first and largest incident came in December of 2017, when Sri Lanka handed over the port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease after it couldn’t repay the debt of $8 billion dollars it owed Chinese firms that constructed it. All of these cases serve as fuel for the argument against the Belt and Road Initiative, championed by the USA and other nations.
Whether or not the dangers of the Belt and Road Initiative outweighs its benefits are not clear today. After all, many projects under the plan haven’t been drafted, much less completed. The Silk Road went on the record as a successful realization of an empire’s ambition, but will the BRI reach the same outcome? For now, a true answer eludes us. But soon enough, the world will know if China’s hegemony could indeed lead to harmony.