Five years on, China’s Belt and Road Initiative faces challengers

Five years on, China’s Belt and Road Initiative faces challengers


The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) looks a lot different today than it did when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced it five years ago, said experts gathered in early October 2018 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

In the beginning, Xi heralded the investment scheme as a win-win for countries that elected to partner with the PRC, which promised infrastructure improvements and other economic investments to Indo-Pacific countries and elsewhere, including Africa. Today, BRI projects are riddled with delays, the inability for nations to repay PRC loans and growing skepticism that BRI projects ultimately benefit any nation other than China. Some projects are proving to be empty promises, even deceptive deals.

Nevertheless, the BRI is “the most ambitious geo-economic vision in recent history, perhaps in all history,” Johnathan E. Hillman, senior fellow and Reconnecting Asia director at CSIS, said during opening remarks for daylong discussions at CSIS on “China’s Belt and Road at Five.”

The initiative, introduced in 2013 and which the PRC then called “One Belt, One Road,” primarily focused on projects over land and a “maritime silk road.” The initiative has since expanded to the Arctic, cyberspace and outer space, Hillman said. (Pictured: A Chinese construction worker stands on land reclaimed from the Indian Ocean for a Colombo Port City project in Sri Lanka as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.)

“Countries have signed on as far-flung as Central America,” he said.

Scholars say the BRI is the most extensive plan of its kind since the Marshall Plan, a U.S. initiative to aid Western Europe and help it rebuild following World War II. Marshall Plan aid totals reached what would be valued at U.S. $140 billion today; BRI has promised investment of up to U.S. $1 trillion, according to CSIS. It’s important to note that that’s promised investment, versus actual dollars spent, Hillman said.

Ambition is one thing, but the ability and commitment to fulfill a pledge is quite another.

“China often promises more than it delivers,” he said.

To date, Japan remains the largest investor in Southeast Asia infrastructure, particularly where Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia are concerned, according to Amy Searight, senior advisor and director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

Searight said that Southeast Asia is the geographic and political center of the Indo-Pacific, and that more focus should be there and on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The PRC’s attempt to build a sphere of influence across the region, however, doesn’t equate to a Chinese monopoly on Southeast Asia, experts said.

“Assertions of sovereignty by South and Southeast Asia nations will continue to be effective as China tries to expand,” said Nilanthi Samaranayake, an analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses who leads the organization’s research on Indian Ocean and South Asia security.

She said that while some Indo-Pacific nations have run into challenges by partnering with the PRC on BRI projects, India remains steadfast in its opposition to Xi’s plan.

“From an Indian point of view, it looks like India is being surround by these [Belt and Road] corridors,” Samaranayake said. “India is concerned.”

For its part, India recognizes that Southeast Asian countries want many partners, not just China.

To make itself more attractive and as a counterbalance to the PRC, India is working to correct internal issues and criticism it often faces, such as delays in completing projects.

The BRI “brings about more strings than positive outcomes,” said Searight. As long as this negative trend continues, other nations can use that to better leverage themselves as more desirable investment partners than the PRC. At the very least, experts said, nations should use disparaging marks against the PRC to make sure that any BRI agreements they sign do indeed equate to a positive gain for not just China, but also for the country receiving the investment.