Skip to content

China tries to ease 'Belt and Road' worries

China pushed back against skeptics of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, promising a "high quality" US$1 trillion global infrastructure program.

China pushed back against skeptics of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, promising a "high quality" US$1 trillion global infrastructure program involving more than 150 nations and international organizations.

Concluding its second forum on the initiative in Beijing, China's President Xi Jinping pledged greater transparency and clean governance in response to international skepticism that the project launched in 2013 will spread Chinese influence through so-called debt trap diplomacy. The first such forum was held in 2017.

China says its lenders have provided US$440 billion in financing. Despite fears about being weighed down with too much debt, developing nations have embraced the infusion of Chinese investment money by agreeing to build roads, ports and other ways of facilitating trade.

“All interested countries are welcome to join us,” he said. “While the Belt and Road Initiative was launched by China, its opportunities and outcomes are shared by the world."

The project to expand China's self-described "Silk Road Economic Belt" and its "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" involves a web of road, rail and sea transportation routes, digital infrastructure and investments with nations and international organizations around Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.

But the centerpiece of Xi's administration has run headlong into criticism — mostly in the West but also among some in Asia and Africa — that murky financing and unsustainable debt could turn developing nations that accept the help into pawns of Chinese influence. Xi emphasized the global nature of the project.

"More than 150 countries and international organizations have signed agreements on Belt and Road cooperation with China," Xi told the forum.

"The complementarity between the BRI and the development plans or cooperation initiatives of international and regional organizations such as the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union, the European Union, the Eurasian Economic Union and between the BRI and the development strategies of the participating countries has been enhanced," he said.

The Japanese-led Asian Development Bank, formed in the 1960s with support from the entity now known as the U.N. Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific, has said that US$26 trillion of investment is needed by 2030 to keep the regional economy afloat.

But some nations have run into trouble repaying China's loans; some high-profile projects in Malaysia, Montenegro and Sri Lanka that appear to overly benefit China have gaven rise to skepticism. Thailand and Malaysia reduced involvement to lower costs of projects usually overseen by Chinese state-run businesses.

Many of the nations that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative also belong to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral development bank that only began operating in 2016. It started with US$100 billion in capital, about half the World Bank's resources, and was quickly seen as a potential rival to the West, despite including members such as Germany, India, Russia and Switzerland. It has so far invested US$7.94 billion among 39 projects, far less than the more than US$10 billion a year that was expected.

In response to concerns about its ambitions, and to questions about whether it would uphold global standards for environmental protection and good governance, the Chinese government has promoted its infrastructure-building project as a win-win for all.

"The Belt and Road Initiative originated in China, but it belongs to the world. It is rooted in history, but oriented toward the future. It focuses on Asia, Europe and Africa, but is open to all partners," a government report on the project asserted this past week.

Calls for 'green development'

Xi told the summit, which drew dozens of leaders such as Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, that China has the best intentions, in an apparent response to the concerns of development experts over what they view as the potential for corruption and environmental damage.

"Everything should be done in a transparent way and we should have zero tolerance for corruption," Xi said in his keynote speech. "Building high-quality, sustainable, risk-resistant, reasonably priced, and inclusive infrastructure will help countries to fully utilize their resource endowments."

At a U.N. Security Council meeting last month, Beijing and Washington feuded over China's global infrastructure program. The occasion was a council meeting where nations unanimously voted to extend the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan for six months. As in two previous years, the resolution that authorized the extension included a nod to the BRI. saying it could help efforts to beef up regional economic cooperation.

After the vote, however, U.S. deputy ambassador Jonathan Cohen told the council that “China held the resolution hostage and insisted on making it about Chinese national political priorities rather than the people of Afghanistan.”

The Trump administration opposed China’s demand “that the resolution highlight its belt and road initiative, despite its tenuous ties to Afghanistan and known problems with corruption, debt distress, environmental damage, and lack of transparency," Cohen said.

China’s deputy ambassador Wu Haitao, however, called Cohen's statements erroneous and biased. “The ‘belt and road’ initiative is conducive to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and economic development,” Wu said.

It is not just developing nations that have lined up to take part in the project. Swiss President Ueli Maurer and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, for example, were among the Western leaders on hand at the summit.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized the need for China to be part of a global push for more climate-friendly, environmental solutions that also promote social and gender equality.

“We must reimagine and rebuild our world in a way that works for everyone, brings women into the leadership of the economy of the future and expands the opportunities for young people," Guterres said in a speech.

"Now, it is in this context that the Belt and Road Initiative assumes remarkable and urgent importance," he said. "With the scale of its planned investments, it offers a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the creation of a more equitable, prosperous world for all, and to reversing the negative impact of climate change."