The second Summit on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), held in Beijing from April 26 to 27 and attended by several world leaders from more than 150 countries, provided an opportunity to showcase China’s mega project aimed at promoting global growth and prosperity.
But critics, led by the US, used the occasion to castigate the BRI as a manifestation of China’s “geo-political ambitions” that would force developing countries into a “debt trap”. At the heart of this controversy is whether the BRI is a benign Chinese endeavour to promote greater international connectivity for shared economic development or a tool to dominate Asian, African and Latin American countries. This issue is of paramount importance for Pakistan since CPEC is the flagship project of the BRI and an example to be emulated by other developing countries. Therefore, the BRI needs to be placed in its true context.
Unveiled by President Xi in 2013, “as a foreign policy priority”, the BRI seeks to “revive and reinvigorate the ancient Silk Roads that connected China with Eurasia. To actualise this initiative, China set up development oriented financial institutions and planning mechanisms to accelerate the construction of infrastructure connecting China with neighbouring regions and build a “Silk Road Economic Belt and a Maritime Silk road to form a new pattern of all-around opportunities”.
The China Development Bank alone earmarked nearly one trillion US dollars by 2015 for over 900 projects involving transportation, infrastructure and energy. The Chinese Export-Import Bank pledged financing for more than 1,000 projects in 49 countries as part of the BRI. The total Chinese financial outlay is estimated at about three trillion dollars. Today over 80 countries are directly part of this initiative while scores of others, including several members of the EU, are also involved. These countries spread from and across Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America — a total of around 63 per cent of the world’s population with a collective total of over 21 trillion dollars of global output.
Guided by China’s policy of “harmonious rise” to superpower status and “win-win cooperation” with partnering countries, President Xi has maintained that “exchange will replace estrangement”; “mutual learning will replace clashes” and “coexistence will replace a sense of superiority”. More pointedly Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that “the BRI is not a geo-political tool but a platform for cooperation”.
The BRI grand design is unprecedented in scale but not unique. Such linkages have been suggested before. In the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, American officials spoke of their goal to “revive ancient ties between South and Central Asia…to create new links in the areas of trade, transport, democracy, energy and communications”.
Later, in 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed creating a “new Silk Road — an international network of economic and transit connections”. But these proved to be mere statements of intent rather than substantive policies backed up by financial commitments.
More recently, Trump’s Secretary of State Pompeo announced an enhanced US regional role in the “Indo-Pacific” as “one of the greatest engines of the global economy” for which he announced 113 million dollars in new initiatives, a minuscule amount compared to China’s trillion dollars investments.
The reality is that a declining US, and under Trump an unreliable partner to boot, does not carry the same influence as a rising China. Unable to compete in the global marketplace, the US has resorted to building pressure against China.
Instead of accepting China (and Russia) as equal partners to evolve a new stable international order, the US has resorted to building military alliances and trade wars to contain and confront China. A key part of this strategy is to demonise China as a “predatory state” that is using the BRI to entrap poor countries through increasing their debt burden. American-dominated international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank are being used to spread such allegations.
But this canard has been exposed by objective Americans themselves. For example, of the overall debt for African countries, estimated by the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University amounting to 143 billion dollars, the majority of this debt is owed to non-Chinese lenders mainly Western banks.
The total debt of Latin American countries, according to the Global Development Policy Centre, “financing from China alone did not appear to be driving borrowers above the IMF’s debt sustainability threshold”. Similarly, the controversy generated about Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port which was allegedly surrendered to China due to non-payable debts of 46 billion dollars, it was revealed that actually only 10 per cent of the debt is owed to China. In short, according to these analysts, as reported in The New York Times of April 27, “fears that China is deliberately preying on countries in need are unfounded”.
Pakistan’s own example is a case in point. While Secretary Pompeo fulminated that the US will not allow the IMF to bail out Pakistan so that it could pay off its Chinese loans, the fact remains that over 80 per cent of Pakistan’s debt is owed to Western lenders including the US and IMF, not to China.
Aside from the debt burden argument, the US has resorted to a massive disinformation and destabilisation campaign within Pakistan through its proxies and touts to mislead Pakistanis about CPEC. It has also enlisted its Indian acolytes to oppose CPEC, by promoting terrorism through the BLA and the TTP, such as attacks on Chinese workers and the Chinese Consulate in Karachi. In this effort, the Gwadar port has also been projected as a Chinese naval base rather than what it actually is — a commercial port for trading and trans-shipment purposes.
Undoubtedly, in any project the size of the BRI, there will be shortcomings which President Xi acknowledged at the recent Summit, calling for transparency and zero tolerance for corruption. But to argue that the BRI is a geo-political power grab by China to challenge the US belies its real purpose and exposes America’s own vulnerabilities in a changing world order.