The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was proposed by Chinese leadership more than six years ago, and today the projects it is inspired globally have made a big impact on many countries. There has been a lot of money spent and lent, and also tremendous controversy generated in some nations.
China designed the BRI to work on many different levels. The most important concept that drives the BRI is the internationalization of the Chinese economy. China was closed to the outside world for many decades after the communist revolution under Mao Tse-tung, and the BRI is a program that illustrates how powerful China has become on the world stage.
According to China, the BRI serves to help the people of China to live the “Chinese Dream” of prosperity. For the rest of the world, the BRI helps the global village to build a “community with a shared future for mankind”, at least according to Chinese-approved publications.
A World With Beijing at its Center
The Chinese government makes no secret of the authoritarian control of its nation, and the recent construction of internment camps for the ethnic minority Uyghur population in the Xinjiang province of China is a graphic demonstration of how Beijing ultimately deals with any sort of dissent.
China paints a far different picture of its politics when the BRI is discussed, though the same themes play out no matter where BRI development money is spent. There is no doubt that some viable infrastructure is being built with Chinese money, labor, and state-owned companies, but the effects of this grand program on local populations vary.
When China talks about the BRI, it sees the goals of the program on four levels.
The first and second levels are designed to further China’s diplomatic mission under Xi Jinping, who has cemented his position in the Chinese hierarchy for his natural life. The third level of the BRI is to create an active role for China in global governance. The fourth is said to be altruistic and is the main platform for Chinese aid to flow to the needy of the world.
As balanced as these goals may seem for a powerful nation on the rise, the actual implementation of BRI programs has been fraught with corruption. The BRI has also exported a Chinese labor force to many points of the globe, and also saddled small nations with enormous debts.
A Big Win for China
China has signed a staggering number of agreements in the course of the BRI opening six years. In total, 195 documents with 136 countries and 30 international organizations have been signed within the BRI framework. The United Nations has also passed resolutions that support some of the BRI’s projects, although there has been push-back from other global powers, as well as some BRI ‘partner’ nations.
For China, the increased power it is accumulating is all part of its new role as a global power broker. China sees itself as a force for good in global governance, and it is using economic means to open the door to a much more important role in world trade.
When a nation decides to enter a partnership with China in the BRI, the likelihood is that they will end up with large debts, a Chinese state-owned company building all the key infrastructure in the project, and a large Chinese labor force in their nation.
The equipment and material for the project will also be imported from China to the greatest extent that is possible, which means more money flowing back to Chinese state-owned banks, and decades of reliance on China for parts and maintenance.
China has used numerous methods to secure these agreements, including corrupt deals that saw large amounts of money siphoned off BRI projects by wildly corrupt politicians, as was the case in the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia.
The exposure of the corruption in Malaysia led to the fall of the government that created the original agreements, and a renegotiation of the contracts that led to somewhat better terms for the Malaysian people. China sees the BRI as a way to increase its international political reach, but it has also created a terrible image of corruption and one-sided deals with opportunistic politicians in some of the world’s poorest nations.
Challenging The Chinese Century
The emergence of China as a manufacturing powerhouse was met with some enthusiasm and loads of direct investment from other global economic centers, but the rise of China as a force for global governance is creating worries in the same powerful economic zones.
The United States and the Western media have voiced concerns over the corruption that the BRI has seemingly supported in some areas, and how the debts that have been incurred could lead to China taking over large amounts of valuable property globally.
These concerns have been shared by many local populations, as many of the governments that cut deals with the Chinese government didn’t give their population a chance to challenge the investments that could displace local people, and destroy their local natural resources.
The ongoing trade war between the US and China may be one way that the USA is working to hinder the advance of Chinese BRI development, and there have been many local-level protests in areas where Chinese development is taking place.
Bringing the BRI Back to its Values
The Chinese government set some high goals for the BRI. However, in practice, the BRI seems like a one-way street that will help China to expand both its economy and global role as a superpower. The rampant corruption in many BRI projects can’t be undone, and the use of predatory debt agreements that put client nations into an unsustainable position should be seen for what it is.
While it is possible for China to use responsible lending practices, stamp out corruption at the highest levels, and open up BRI projects to other nations, none of these things are likely to happen at scale. The BRI was and is designed to expand Chinese power, and actions taken by China are well within the scope of the actual goals that are driving the BRI.
As China works to expand its influence, it is likely to face increasing pressure for other global powers, as well as the disenfranchised populations in the nations where BRI projects are enriching the powerful few at the top, and a host of native Chinese who flock to BRI projects to work and start new businesses.
The BRI is clearly the most ambitious global infrastructure project since the end of the Second World War, and it may succeed in changing the global power balance. The road to that new world will likely be a rough one, and will undoubtedly be marred by tremendous corruption, human rights abuses, and catastrophic damage to the environment.