Chintamani Mahapatra

Chinese president Xi Jinping is an ambitious dreamer. Ever since he assumed the coveted political position in China, he has undertaken massive exercises to make the country an unchallenged global leader and has made himself the paramount emperor, though not in nomenclature, by concentrating enormous power in his own hands.

In the very near future, President Xi is most likely to get a third term in office, while his rivals, competitors and opponents at home would continue to spend time in jail or remain thoroughly side-lined.

One of his mega projects to carve out a large chunk of the world to maintain Chinese hegemony over them is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched about nine years ago. It was part of the strategy to make China the centre of a mini-world, a hub with multiple spokes spread around South and Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean, Africa and then around Europe. Slowly the area under BRI was spread to include parts of Latin America as well.

Xi spoke about a future with “common destiny” with all these hundred-plus countries that would take Chinese loans, technology, managers, engineers, and labourers to develop great infrastructure in their respective countries to maintain connectivity with China — the leader who would determine and define all the elements that would constitute the “common destiny” for prosperity.

The idea of the belt, that would connect countries through which the ancient silk road passed, was first broached in Kazakhstan and the concept of the road, that would connect the countries through the maritime space, was spelt out in Indonesia by the president himself in 2013. Four years later, leaders of about sixty countries were invited to Beijing to attend a grand event where the Belt and Road Initiative was announced by Xi with much pomp and ceremony.

While even the United States, several European countries and Japan sent representatives, the only invitee that refused to attend this event or even endorse the idea of BRI was India. In a few years a large number of countries signed MoUs with China and expressed willingness to join the BRI project. India’s neighbours, such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives too appeared enchanted by the promised “common destiny”. Pakistan’s enthusiasm to be part of the BRI was quite manifest, even as Beijing pledged about $60 billion of investment to build “world class” infrastructure in that country.

All these happened during a time when the international community was witnessing the only superpower stuck in the Afghan quagmire and the aspiring superpower, China, was any country’s envy due to its unprecedented economic success story in world history. Chinese analysts appeared almost cocksure about the declining influence of the United States in world affairs and the manner of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, domestic polarisation in the American society and lacklustre performance of the country in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic further boosted the Chinese confidence that Chinese hegemony would be the next thing to come.

However, a series of other developments in recent years seem to have pricked the Chinese dream and brought considerable challenges to the BRI project. First, the tariff war initiated by the Trump Administration and continued by the Biden Administration had a direct impact on the Chinese economy. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic not only adversely affected the Chinese image in the world but also led to disruption in the supply chain and hence the Chinese economic growth story as well.

Third, Chinese military offensive moves in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Sino-Indian border rang the death knell of the widespread publicity of “peaceful rise of China.” Fourth, the assault on democratic governance in Hong Kong, harsh treatment meted out to the Uyghur community in Xinjiang province, threatening military manoeuvres against Taiwan and China’s approach towards the Taliban post NATO withdrawal also revealed the true nature of the Chinese government that proposes working for a “common destiny” with other countries.

The most telling challenge to the very concept of BRI, of course, has been its unproductive outcome in some of the countries, such as Sri Lanka that has fallen into a “debt trap” and has been forced to give to China on lease for 99 years a high-profile port at Hambantota built as part of the BRI project. Many economists have held the BRI to be partly responsible for the current economic turmoil and civil strife in Sri Lanka.

The BRI project is not transparent, has no provision to safeguard the environment, is a unilateral initiative that is solely decided by China and has a confidentiality clause that hides the true nature of the contract and the one that largely reflects Beijing’s predatory economic practices.

A large number of developing countries were prematurely charmed by the BRI project with the hope of getting capital assistance for infrastructure development with little strings attached. The visible consequences of the BRI projects in quite a few countries seem to have a cascading effect leading to a late realisation of the dangers involved in such projects. Nepal has not been able to implement a single BRI project years after signing the agreement. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya, Nigeria and several countries in Eastern Europe have been witnessing local resistance to Chinese projects.

The killing of Chinese nationals working in BRI projects in Pakistan has surprised everyone, including the Chinese government. The economic fallout of the pandemic and the Ukrainian War too have erected roadblocks to steady implementation of the BRI projects.

It is a welcome development that the developing countries are slowly realising the reason why India stayed out of BRI that had little respect for the principle of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Some governments in the developing world have also found out how the Chinese embassies in their respective countries seek to influence local decision-making.

Significantly, the Build Back Better (B3) project by the Group of Seven (G-7) advanced industrial economies seeking to mobilise more than $40 trillion for offering an alternative to Chinese BRI projects, the “Global Gateway” proposal of the European Union with more than 300 billion Euros to compete with the Chinese BRI projects; and the Japan-India collaboration to build an “Asian-African Growth Corridor” have the potential to benefit the developing countries by offering them options for choosing transparent, environment-friendly, and rule-based projects so that they could not be cheated by opaque and predatory proposals.

What is required, however, is not just grand schemes but the determination to implement them so that the rule-based global order and the infrastructure developments are sustainable and affordable for myriad developing countries.

This article was first published in Firstpost as China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Towering ambition, shallow foundation on 23 May 2022.

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About the Author

Chintamani Mahapatra, is a Professor of American Studies, School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.