China is synonymous with authoritarianism, overpopulation, manufacturing, expansionism, and patent infringement. However, the most recent addition, besides concentration camps for Uighurs is the Belt Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI was announced by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, as an Economic and Maritime Silk Road. This multi-faceted project assimilates infrastructure connectivity, investment and trade cooperation, financial integration, cultural exchange, and regional cooperation between Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. The projected cost of the BRI could reach a gargantuan $1.2–1.3trillion by 2027 as predicted by Morgan Stanley, making BRI the most expensive and expansive International infrastructure project ever taken.
The antecedents of the modern-day BRI could be traced back to the ancient Silk Road; a vast network of routes used by traders to carry goods between the Eastern and Western civilizations. In comparison, the modern-day Silk Road is a comprehensive set of infrastructure development projects spanning across 140 countries including China. This unprecedented reach makes BRI an indispensable tool of the Chinese Foreign Policy; helping China to garner support on multilateral forums. The wide acceptance of the BRI is due to its multi-dimensional nature offering Chinese cooperation in Digital, Space, Arctic, Maritime, and overland connectivity. This consortium of connectivity projects in crucial sectors creates a fertile environment for China’s dominance over global trade, giving it an unchecked level of influence and leverage.
China has spent an estimated $200 billion of the estimated $1.2-1.3 trillion investment gap on infrastructure development under the BRI. The generous funding of the BRI projects has been possible due to the Chinese financial institutions which operate through four distinct channels; policy banks, state-owned banks, international financing institutions, and sovereign wealth funds including the Silk Road Fund with a market capitalization of $40 billion. This massive lending capacity dwarfs the US counter to the BRI ‘the Build Act’; which consolidates Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. government agency for development finance, with components of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) into a separate agency with a $60 billion investment portfolio.
“All human plans [are] subject to ruthless revision by Nature, or Fate, or whatever one preferred to call the powers behind the Universe.”? Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two.
The worldwide spread of the coronavirus has led to the BRI projects come to a screeching halt. We are now heading towards a post-pandemic society, where the new rule book on International cooperation is yet to be scripted since the pre-Covid rules have been deemed irrelevant around the world.
The lockdown has been a period of reflection for the people and nations alike; culminating in the revision of domestic and international policies. India has embarked on a policy of self-dependence and many other countries have downgraded their relationships with China.
However, in South Asia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, remain to be major recipients of Chinese assistance during the crisis despite the International criticism of China’s role in the pandemic. In response, China has re-invigorated the ‘Health’ dimension of the BRI; giving China the opportunity to change or control the global narrative and push its own official line that, it has been transparent, open, and comprehensive in dealing with the pandemic, “buying precious time for the global response.”
Earlier in 2017, China had received support from the WHO for its involvement in Public health at the Belt and Road Forum for Health Cooperation. However, with the origin of the virus being in China and the mishandling by the WHO at the early stage of the virus, nations have developed a sense of resentment towards WHO and China. As a consequence, countries have been looking for an alternative to Chinese testing kits, expertise and medicines to combat the COVID-19.
The pandemic has halted the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Cambodia’s Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, the Payra power plant in southern Bangladesh, and the Port City development project in western Sri Lanka.
Even before Covid-19 wreaked havoc on supply chains and imposed travel bans on Chinese workers, many of China’s BRI projects especially in Africa were coming under scrutiny. African Countries have already called for $100 billion in bailouts and debt relief to help them cope with the devastating effects of the pandemic.
Figures from the China-Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School indicates that China lent over $143 billion to African countries between 2000 and 2017. In South Asia, the Maldives has sought to renegotiate its debt to China while Bangladesh has requested China to consider deferring payments.
Although China has previously agreed to write off debts it has done so in a unilateral non-transparent manner with no international oversight. As lockdowns lift globally, infrastructure projects will resume operations, however, the capital which funds the construction will be scanty. The Chinese economy has contracted by 6.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020, with a slowdown already underway, Beijing is being careful about new investments. It is likely to prioritize mitigating the financial impact of the virus and resolving the trade war with the United States over rolling out new overseas infrastructure projects. While BRI projects may not be shelved, they will most certainly be plagued by delays.