By Brahma Chellaney
Grand on ambition but short on transparency, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), seeks to refashion the global economic and political order by luring nations desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. The BRI is essentially an imperial project aiming to make real the mythical Middle Kingdom.
The BRI, rolled out in 2013, attracted many countries, as China offered to finance and build major infrastructure projects, including ports, highways, energy plants and railroads. But after a smooth sailing, the BRI is now encountering strong headwinds, as partner-countries worry about China ensnaring them in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.
China has extended huge loans to financially weak states, only to strengthen its leverage through debt entrapment Indeed, Beijing has converted big credits not just into political influence but also a military presence, as its first overseas naval base at Djibouti illustrates.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang by his side in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, recently criticized China’s use of infrastructure projects to spread its influence. By warning China against “a new version of colonialism,” Mr. Mahathir highlighted international concerns over Beijing’s use of geo-economic tools to achieve geopolitical objectives.
A number of countries have now begun trying to renegotiate their deals with Beijing. Some have also decided to scrap or scale back BRI projects. Mr. Mahathir, during his Beijing visit, announced cancellation of Chinese projects worth nearly $23 billion.
BRI seeks to export China’s model of top-down, debt-driven development through government-to-government deals. Vulnerable countries are now awakening to the risks of accepting loans that could financially shackle them to Beijing.
Last December, China acquired the strategic Indian Ocean port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease after the small island nation of Sri Lanka could no longer keep up with debt repayments.
In fact, China is even replicating some of the practices that were used against it during the European-colonial period. For example, the concept of a 99-year lease emerged from the flurry of European-colonial expansion in China in the 19th century.
While rates for Japan’s infrastructure loans usually run below half a percent, China offers BRI loans at rates as high as 7 percent, which can place unsustainable financial strain on small countries. For example, China’s renegotiated Hambantota port loan to Sri Lanka carries a 6.3 percent fixed rate. In China’s client state, Pakistan, Chinese state companies have secured energy contracts that guarantee 16 percent or more yearly returns, in dollar terms.
China has faced accusations in multiple countries of illegally funneling money to authoritarian presidents.
In the Maldives, China has managed to acquire several islets in that heavily indebted Indian Ocean archipelago. Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically elected president who was ousted at gunpoint in 2012, said, “Without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land in the Maldives than what [Britain’s] East India Company did at the height of the 19th century.”
Against this background, the BRI is beginning to encounter a push-back in a number of countries. A growing number of governments are seeking transparency in Chinese lending, investment and trade practices.
However, the BRI is still bagging new contracts in some other countries. One example is the Himalayan nation of Nepal, which became the world’s sixth Communist-ruled country in February. China helped unite warring Communist factions in Nepal and funded the election campaign. Now Beijing is reaping the rewards.
The new Communist government in Nepal in September reinstated a deal with China for a $2.5 billion dam project that was scrapped by the previous government. China won the contract without an open-bidding process. In fact, it has massively inflated the project cost, which will leave Nepal struggling to repay the Chinese loan.
Laos, another Communist-ruled nation, is also seeking more BRI financing and investment. In continental Southeast Asia, while Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are wary of getting too close to China, Laos and Cambodia see BRI as critical to boosting their economic growth.
Yet the international reality is that, after a heady first phase, the pace of new contracts under the BRI has slowed, as concerns spread about China’s debt-trap diplomacy and as heavily indebted nations recoil from accepting more Chinese financing in the form of market-rate loans. This trend is likely to intensify in the next few years.
Even within China, the BRI is facing criticism from those who question the wisdom of plowing hundreds of billions of dollars into overseas projects when the government is still grappling with poverty and underdevelopment in a number of provinces. Critics are concerned that Mr. Xi’s aggressive quest for Chinese dominance is inviting an international backlash. The BRI — the world’s biggest building program, which Mr. Xi has hailed as “the project of the century” — exemplifies how China is flaunting its global ambitions.
Meanwhile, the financial and security risks of Chinese projects in failing or dysfunctional states are becoming more apparent. Take Pakistan, the largest recipient of BRI financing. The Pakistani military has raised a special 15,000-strong force to protect Chinese projects. In addition, thousands of police have been deployed in some provinces to protect Chinese workers. Yet sporadic attacks on Chinese in Pakistan have underscored the rising security costs.
The larger push-back against China’s neocolonial practices is likely to intensify in the coming years, putting greater pressure on the BRI. The initiative, however, will continue to benefit from a U.S.-led sanctions approach that seeks to punish countries in the name of human rights or nuclear nonproliferation. Thanks to this approach, the BRI is still bagging major lucrative contracts in countries as diverse as Iran, Sudan and Cambodia.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”