To determine whether China can deliver a better Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), we must first ask whether Beijing is first of all capable of delivering a better BRI? Accusations of practicing debt-trap diplomacy and new forms of colonialism have had some impact on Beijing’s thinking, resulting in its pivot in 2018 to commit to a new, greener BRI, but the foundation of its “grand plan” for implementing the BRI basically remains similar to when it started in 2013.
Beijing’s BRI Hubris Comes at a Price
President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China (CCP) have put some good-looking window dressing on the basic package, but so far, many BRI host country governments would say not all that much has changed since 2018, when Xi announced a pivot. Beijing is very good at saying one thing and doing another, as numerous governments around the world have learned. As a result, BRI host nations will inevitably believe that Beijing has had a real change of heart when they see it.
Part of Beijing’s problem is that it does not appear to be attuned to what the world is thinking. Perhaps it does not care. Reading Chinese media reports on the subject leaves one with the impression that the world is in unison and harmony with Beijing, its vision for the world and its performance thus far with the BRI. For example, according to the CCP’s primary media outlet, the China Daily, a 2018 survey of 8,500 people in 17 BRI countries determined that “more than 70% agreed with the concepts of the “Chinese Dream,” the Belt and Road and “a community with a shared future for mankind.” But even this Chinese government-sponsored survey admitted that 64% of respondents believed that the BRI will confront many difficulties and challenges in the future.
That concern was echoed by a 2019 survey by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, which polled more than 1,000 respondents in the government sector, the business community, civil society, academia and the media from across all 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It found that fewer than 10% of respondents viewed China as “a benign and benevolent power,” 64% had little or no confidence that Beijing’s revised approach to the BRI will result in a fairer deal for their respective countries, and nearly 50% responded that they believed that Beijing possessed an intent to turn Southeast Asia into its own sphere of influence. That does not sound like a particularly inspiring foundation from which to try to turn things around.
Beijing knows it has a long road ahead. To its credit, it has issued regulations intended to better monitor the conduct of state-owned enterprises and private Chinese businesses, mandating that they should pay more attention to environmental, social, integrity, financial and other risk factors. If a particular host nation’s laws are weak, these entities have been advised to ensure compliance with Chinese law, international treaties and conventions, and industry best practices. Reporting requirements, capital controls, and the regulation of overseas finance and investment have been tightened, which has contributed to the notable decline in new Chinese overseas loans and investments since 2017.
Outside the Norm
That said, Beijing has generally been reluctant to apply its laws to the activities of its entities overseas. In fact, State Council guidance requiring extensive disclosure of contracts for major construction projects expressly exempts overseas investment and foreign aid projects. Laws criminalizing the bribery of foreign officials have never been enforced. Although Chinese courts have heard cases related specifically to the BRI, unless a project contract contains explicit obligations for which performance is sought, enforcement of Chinese laws for overseas actions almost never occurs. Beijing appears to be banking on the fact that a great many of the BRI’s host governments have worse transparency and corruption ratings than China, which presumably makes their willingness to pursue Chinese entities engaged in corruption less likely in the first place.
As long as Beijing continues to insist that only Chinese entities will provide financing for BRI projects, there is no way for external organizations to monitor transparency, corruption or adherence to international standards. That will, by itself, ensure that tension remains between Beijing, BRI host nations and the West, and signals to the world that Beijing is not in fact serious about reforming fundamental aspects of the initiative. Greater emphasis can be placed on taking some care not to blatantly violate national laws and international norms, allowing Beijing to proclaim that progress is being made, but that will continue to be on a relative scale.
If practices were previously wholly outside the norm of internationally acceptable behavior but they are improved, they can remain outside the norm of acceptable behavior even though they have improved. More than minor tweaks are required to demonstrate that a true pivot has occurred. Beijing certainly has the ability to implement meaningful wholesale change to the BRI if it chooses to, but it has yet to do so. Based on its prior history of performance regarding its flagship initiative, such changes stand little chance of being implemented.
*[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.