China has launched a worldwide Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2013. It was in 2013 that current President of China, Xi Jinping assumed power. The concept was announced by Xi Jinping in September 2013 in the Central Asian Republic (CAR) of Kazakhstan as “Silk Road Economic Belt”, with the intention of creating a vast network of road, rail and support infrastructure to connect the majority of land locked nations with other nations to ensure economic growth, prosperity and better understanding. But then China is leveraging its financial muscles to expand its economic, diplomatic and political influence in the garb of this initiative.
China has also conceptualized the extension of Maritime Silk Route, which is being implemented by the development of ports, shipping infrastructure and road network in the target countries. Apparently, a progressive economic development strategy, it has huge future challenges for the participating countries given China’s expansionist agenda and its debt trap strategy. While land connectivity addresses a large number of nations in Asia and Europe, the maritime connectivity addresses the majority of coastal nations in Asia, Africa and Europe. These two converge in Europe, after having commenced in China. These have multiple branches to cover a larger number of nations as against being a single linear alignment. China has carefully chosen these countries to secure its energy resources, source raw materials from the resource rich countries and reach out to major population bases to explore the markets for its produce and utilization of spare capacities.
The BRI concept gained momentum in 2017 once it was included in the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2017. China has invested substantial effort, leadership, funds and strategy which have resulted in the BRI’s expansion substantially. It expands on the erstwhile silk road established during the Han Dynasty and covers more than 140 countries in four continents including Latin America. BRI is the grand political-economic project with the aim of establishing China as the sole superpower by 2035 and complete all the BRI projects by 2049 as world class infrastructure. The project connects more than 70% of energy resources, touches almost half of the world population directly or indirectly and shortens multiple connectivities substantially, one such example being the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
CPEC commenced in mid-2013 but got more impetus from 2015 onwards being one of the BRI projects. CPEC will have road and rail networks between China and Pakistan, with multiple infrastructure projects along these. Ports will be also developed to include Gwadar and Karachi besides a westward extension to benefit China to provide an alternative route for energy supplies as well as reach to countries like Afghanistan and Iran.
But BRI is under criticism because of the following:
* The financing model is neither fully transparent nor in the interest of the host country.
* Project implementation is poor in a number of cases due to public protests, labour concerns. It’s also exploitative in nature.
* BRI debt traps nations, as apparent from the experiences of Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
* New fault lines are emerging between China and the host nations’ governments and the local population. BRI is unsupportive to the local economy and is mostly exploitative.
* A number of alignments pass through disputed territories specially in the Indian context. BRI as well as CPEC pass through disputed areas of Aksai Chin in Ladakh and POK in Pakistan. The recent joint call by BRI, CPEC participants to invite other countries to participate in such projects has also drawn adverse criticism from India. The maritime alignment of BRI is also a strangulation attempt to encircle India whereas China showcasing its friendship for Sri Lanka has already strangulated it, nearing the collapse of Sri Lankan economy. The strangulation has been also done for Pakistan through CPEC which is also inching towards economic collapse slowly but steadily.
There are many more challenges related to BRI transparency in funding and operationalization of projects being the most important ones. BRI is seen as furthering Chinese economic concerns in the façade of being advantageous for all.
It’s obvious that BRI will be a counter to the economic interests of the United States and its European friends. It is towards this that G7 leaders and President Joe Biden announced the launch of Partnership for Global Infrastructure to enhance connectivity and infrastructure development in the undeveloped countries which is a must if the world economy has to grow and benefit of growth has to reach the last person. The moot issue remains the Chinese model, which has debt trapped even friendly countries such as Pakistan. Unpaid dues by Pakistan, collapsing economy, killing of Chinese workers and unrest in Balochistan are some of the very many challenges faced by CPEC. Though Pakistani government is going all out to support CPEC but it is collapsing slowly. If Pakistan does not understand the Chinese game plan and does not take proactive steps for the recovery of its economy, it is sure to move into a debt trap in the times to come.
The Chinese have carefully identified the countries both for its BRI land route and maritime route so that they further its political, diplomatic, strategic and economic agenda with least consideration to the host country.
Whether the US-led G7 bid to develop requisite infrastructure to connect various countries becomes an appropriate response to Chinese BRI or not, will need to be seen. At the moment, Chinese BRI has the definite edge despite its destructive agenda.