Despite more than 3,000 years of Chinese history, many of the world’s countries had little to no direct experience with China or Chinese investment prior to the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There was a presumption on the part of many governments that international best practices were well established and that China would be in compliance with those standards as it rolled out the initiative. As they now know, that often turned out not to be the case, but the fact that the Chinese business model is a mix of public and private sector participation, rules and regulations that are not necessarily logical or coherent and are often misunderstood has complicated matters.
Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative Strategic Genius, Arrogant Overreach or Something Else?
For all concerned, the BRI has in many ways been a leap in the dark, since such an ambitious undertaking had never before been attempted. The Chinese government, and many of the nation’s companies active in the initiative, were, and remain, on a learning curve. The enforceability of Chinese regulations on private sector Chinese companies operating overseas can be inconsistent, and Chinese-built infrastructure has, at times, been found to be substandard. Regulations governing the practices of Chinese firms are frequently revised, leaving many organizations scrambling to keep up in the public and private sectors. It then takes a while for new guidelines to translate into practice abroad.
BRI financing is highly dependent on loans from the China Development Bank, China Export-Import Bank and other state-owned commercial banks. China’s foreign exchange reserves are important sources of capital for these institutions. Although Beijing maintains the world’s largest aggregation of foreign currency, its foreign reserves have declined in recent years, which, when combined with its dramatically slowing economy, raises questions about the sustainability of BRI financing in the medium term.
Under the presumption that foreign capital and support from multilateral financial institutions will be required to sustain BRI projects in the future, China’s Ministry of Finance established the Multilateral Cooperation Center for Development Financing with eight multilateral development banks and financial institutions. The center is expected to enhance the project financing process through a combination of better information sharing, improved project preparation and capacity building. The ministry has also developed the Debt Sustainability Framework for Participating Countries (DSF) of the BRI, collaborating with its counterparts from 28 partner countries. China’s DSF is virtually identical to the World Bank-International Monetary Fund DSF, which governs lending operations for the multilateral institutions and many bilateral lenders. That should increase its prospects for success.
China’s effort is a significant step forward in guarding against the debt challenges associated with the BRI. Debt sustainability can only grow in importance for Beijing. As the BRI progresses, China will have no choice but to take steps to improve reporting transparency vis-à-vis financing, transaction structures and debt repayment. As for host governments that have become saddled with tens of billions of dollars of debt as a result of debt-trap diplomacy, their concerns have been widely shared with Beijing. Many of these nations have already become more discriminating BRI consumers. Although the trail of debt-related issues will certainly not diminish going forward, they will hopefully become less severe in time.
The Chinese government has sought to integrate the BRI with its green growth agenda in an attempt to address criticism of its continued reliance on coal power and the lack of environmental oversight on Chinese infrastructure projects. Although Beijing has made great strides toward improving environmental and resource productivity, greater efficiency gains are vital to achieving a shift toward low-carbon, resource-efficient, competitive economies. Future progress will largely depend on the country’s capacity to integrate environmental aspects into the decision-making process for all its domestic and foreign policies to ensure that industrial and environmental policy objectives and measures are well aligned and mutually supportive.
At ongoing risk also is China’s reputation. The blowback it has experienced as a result of its rollout of the BRI from countries around the world has been unprecedented. The same may be said about its trade practices with the US and its response to COVID-19. Many of the world’s governments and people have simply lost confidence in Beijing, to the extent that they had confidence to begin with. The ball is squarely in Beijing’s court to raise the level of confidence the world may have in the future regarding what it says versus what it actually does. There is no better proving ground on that score than the BRI.
A combination of hubris, a bulldozer approach to getting things done and a complete lack of sensitivity had worked well for the Communist Party of China at home for 70 years, and Beijing apparently believed that doing the same would work well overseas. While some aspects of Beijing’s original approach ended up yielding some positive results, President Xi Jinping’s move toward “BRI lite” in 2018 had to be taken with a grain of salt. He deserves credit for acknowledging some of the initiative’s pitfalls, but the Chinese government’s pivot must ultimately be considered too little and too late.
If it wanted to more fully acknowledge the error of its ways, it would have offered to renegotiate every BRI contract that was clearly skewed in its favor rather than waiting to be asked to do so, award debt forgiveness on a broader basis and stop in its tracks any project under construction that is inconsistent with best environmental practices. That is clearly not going to happen.
*[Daniel Wagner is the author of “The Chinese Vortex: The Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact on the World.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.