BRI should be celebrated as an opportunity – not a route to calamity

Critics have China, not the project, in their crosshairs
REFILE - CORRECTING BYLINE  China's President Xi Jinping walks to greet Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China April 28, 2019. Madoka Ikegami/Pool via REUTERS

There is something about China's Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to connect countries around the world to enhance trade and infrastructure, that is evidently capable of triggering a fit of the vapours in otherwise ostensibly level-headed people. Last week the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing brought together 37 heads of government, including Russia's Vladimir Putin, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, the IMF's managing director Christine Lagarde, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres and leaders from across Asia, Europe and Africa.

During the three-day gathering, Chinese President Xi Jinping tried to tackle doubts about the BRI by saying “we must adhere to the concept of openness, greenness, and cleanliness” and emphasising the need to “operate in the sun and fight corruption together with zero tolerance”.

The forum ended on Saturday with a joint communique one would have thought many would applaud, reaffirming that "strengthening multilateralism remains essential in addressing global challenges" and noting their belief in "an open, inclusive, interconnected, sustainable and people-centred world".

But it was not necessarily a surprise that, ahead of it, China's critics came out in force. Among them was Republican senator Marco Rubio, who wrote on the Breitbart website: "China is trying to fool the world again by luring foreign governments to join its Belt and Road Initiative with extravagant promises of Chinese investment for their infrastructure projects."

What was more unexpected was that Britain's Prospect magazine – generally packed with well-informed and considered essays – should publish an article that said the BRI could be "disastrous".

For there are other ways of looking at both the BRI and the recently concluded forum. At the first event of its kind, in 2017, certain leaders were notable by their absence. In east Asia, in particular, it was much remarked upon that Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, was not even invited. This time Mr Lee was not only there, grinning broadly in all the photos, but he also signed up to one form of BRI cooperation, as did Austria and Switzerland.

Only last summer, Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Mohamad stunned Asian countries when he appeared to compare the BRI to a “new form of colonialism” and baulked at going through with multi-billion dollar infrastructure deals agreed between the two countries. But after the main deal, the East Coast Rail Link, was renegotiated in Malaysia’s favour, the 93-year-old prime minister not only agreed to attend the forum; he also announced that he was “fully in support of the Belt and Road Initiative", adding: "I am sure my country will benefit from the project”.

Meanwhile Imran Khan – prime minister of a country that is said to have got the jitters over the $68 billion in BRI-related projects it will host – said Pakistan was “among the BRI’s most enthusiastic proponents”.

So, here are three examples that would point to an entirely different reading of the forum. Not only was it a success, with US$64 billion worth of deals signed during the meeting, including $3.4bn with the UAE, but there are also clear signs China has been listening to concerns and has shown itself willing to adjust accordingly.

That will not be enough for entrenched critics. But some of their accusations are ridiculous and others are on very thin ground.

Take the claim that the BRI is all about increasing China’s influence around the world. Well, of course it is. No one ever said it was about charity, and what country with the capability to do so would not try to build international presence and leverage? Or is it fine for the West but not for China?

Quote
Yes, the projects must work. Partner countries must have a real stake in them, both in terms of local participation in the workforce, boosts to the local economy and joint funding

Likewise, the dire warnings about "debt traps". Much is made about Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, which had to be handed over to a Chinese company on a 99-year lease in 2017 after the government in Colombo couldn't keep up with the debt repayments. But that was a "special case", according to Deborah Brautigam of Johns Hopkins University. After looking into more than 1,000 Chinese loans in Africa over 17 years, she and her colleagues concluded that "fears that the Chinese government is deliberately preying on countries in need are unfounded".

Further, as I have noted before, the BRI’s success stories – such as the Colombo International Container Terminal, which is expected to help Colombo become one of the top 20 container ports in the world – are seldom mentioned. It does not help that China is curiously bad at spreading its own message abroad.

But overall, there is no reason not to regard the recent forum as a celebration of opportunity – not a sign of an initiative teetering on the verge of disaster. Yes, the projects must work. Partner countries must have a real stake in them, both in terms of local participation in the workforce, boosts to the local economy and joint funding. But firstly, this is obvious and secondly, no one is forced to take part in the BRI.

So is the doom-laden talk in fact all about anger over China’s human rights record and the fact that it is clearly not on the path to democracy? The BRI is, after all, expected to bring trillions of dollars for just the kind of investments that many developing countries are crying out for. Yet some seem so keen for it to fail. My suspicion is that it is not the BRI as such, but China itself, that they want to see humbled. And that is no good reason at all to oppose a project which, as Mr Khan has said, could be “transformative” for billions.

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National