For nearly six years, the Belt and Road initiative has been among the most discussed multilateral projects in the world, but in spite of this, there remain some fundamental misunderstandings about just what Belt and Road is. The following questions tend to be the most common when discussing Belt and Road with those who have yet to delve into the depth and breadth of the initiative:
–“Is Belt and Road a physical superhighway?”
–“Is Belt and Road a trade deal?”
–“Is Belt and Road an internal Chinese development plan?”
–“Is Belt and Road related to the ancient Silk Road?”
The answer is that Belt and Road either is or has the potential to be all of these things.
Sustainable Development, Investment and Infrastructure
Even before Belt and Road was formally presented to the wider world in late 2013, China had been working with its partners throughout the world, in order to help developing and underdeveloped countries to create a domestic modern infrastructure and production base that has and will continue to elevate ordinary people ought of poverty.
Belt and Road has elevated this model into a global drive towards cooperative development between China and its wide array of partners. In order for the developing countries of the wider Afro-Eurasia space to become more competitive in respect of international trade, they must first develop an internal development model that allows them to materially maximise the potential of their own national characteristics and national resources.
China has given hundreds of billions worth of dollars to developing countries in the form of aid package, good will investment, open credit lines and bespoke loans. But more importantly, China simply does not plough money into countries without also helping countries to learn unique and modern developmental models that can help create a future that is internally sustainable rather than reliant on constant cash injections.
This is one of the main differences between Belt and Road and the US neo-liberal developmental model. The US model effectively seeks to secure geopolitical loyalty and future trade deals through cash incentives. China by contrast, uses developmental money and physical investments in order to literally re-build the infrastructure of developing nations so that ordinary people can take charge of their own destiny by generating their own future national revenue through modern regional and global trading connectivity.
In this sense, Belt and Road is all about using technology and modern infrastructure in order to allow developing countries to help themselves within the framework of a rules based global trading environment. China’s hands on approach has helped to lift millions out of poverty whilst creating a sound foundation for continued sustainable development across the globe. By helping countries to revitalise their own infrastructure based on the techniques that have been so successful in China, Belt and Road is making life better for the poorest of the poor, while enhancing opportunities for those in both developing nations and those operating in more advanced economies.
Belt and Road is not an FTA (free trading area) but within the framework of Belt and Road partnerships, China continues to help countries to reap the advantages of free trade in a number of ways. By helping countries to produce much sought after goods in world markets, Chinese investment in the context of Belt and Road can help developing nations to offer more goods to more foreign markets at a competitive price. Thus, as developing nations become capable of producing and shipping more goods abroad, there are clear incentives for bespoke FTAs to go hand-in-hand with Belt and Road development projects.
Likewise, the revenue earned from trading in a more free and fair environment will allow the people in developing nations to purchase much needed technological and other modern goods from abroad. Thus, by helping developing nations to help themselves, free trade will allow the people in large advanced markets to purchase more goods from the developing world, whilst free trade will help to make the purchase of high tech and advanced finished industrial goods (cars for example) more affordable for those in developing countries who are working to make their societies more affluent and socially harmonious.
One of the major components of Belt and Road is to make the cost of free trade lower and the speed of trans-continental trade more rapid through the construction of new transport corridors. One of the main aims of Belt and Road is to increase trade within Asia, Africa and Latin America by developing trans-continental road and railways, whilst also working to streamline trade between the Asia-Pacific region and the broader Afro-Eurasia region.
To-date, the most significant transport corridor that continues to shape Belt and Road connectivity is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The CPEC megaproject links China’s western Xinjiang province to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea – thus making CPEC the main artery in trans-Asian Belt and Road connectivity.
CPEC has led to the creation of further internal transport corridors in Pakistan and has likewise led Pakistan to become a major investment hub for those looking to take advantage of these new connectivity corridors. China likewise looks to solidify a China-Myanmar Transport Corridor, a Pacific to Baltic China-Russia Transport Corridor, a CPEC to Europe transport corridor in which Turkey will play a vital role and a China-Korea transport corridor which will likely come to fruition as the Korean peace process progresses.
By combining internal investments in sustainable development among China’s partners, with the physical linkage necessary to ease the flow of trade, Belt and Road is as much about the brick and mortar of hands on development as it is about free trading agreements among partners.
Furthermore, one of the added benefits of psychical connectivity in the name of trade, is further human-to-human connectivity. This can help to spread peace through trans-national immersion while also unleashing the power of educational and cultural exchange to benefit to human condition through mutual enlightenment.
China’s rapid internal development since Deng Xiaoping’s Opening Up and Reform of 1978, continues to inspire many developing nations who wish to achieve a similar style of success for their people. At the same time, nations that in the past had been the victims of imperialism and that more recently have been the victims of neo-imperialism, are wise to guard against any nation seeking to undermine their national sovereignty and cultural characteristics.
This is why Belt and Road is attractive to multiple Asian, African and Latin American nations. China does not seek to enforce any particular form of government, ideology or alien culture on its partners. China’s model instead seeks to provide bespoke economic, trading and infrastructural solutions to all partners which pay close attention to environmental conservation, respect for human dignity and a total detachment from any desire to politically meddle in the affairs of others.
Belt and Road is about strengthening the cultural characteristics of all partner nations through the concept of building peace through prosperity. For millions throughout the world, this is a welcome shift from the models of neo-imperial exploitation that are still practised by some powerful and wealthy nations.
Problem solving and flexibility – not a debt trap
The “debt-trap” myth spewed by anti-belt and Road propagandists is flawed not only in terms of the fact that it is based on exceptions which prove the rule that most Chinese projects throughout Asia and Africa result in win-win outcomes for both parties, but the myth is also flawed in the sense that it fails to grasp real world realities beyond the ideological and purely theoretical. In life like in geopolitics there is no such thing as a free lunch. While China is more generous in terms of loans, investments and cash injections than most other wealthy nations, it is not in any nation’s interest to rebuild entire continents without getting anything in return.
In this sense, China is engaging in normal business practices that are international standards when it comes to expecting to be paid back on loans that it readily gives to nations aspiring to further develop their economies and infrastructure and does so at levels that are history making in terms of their forward thinking generosity. Of course, instead of offering loans and other investment schemes or otherwise giving away money for free, China could simply come to a foreign state, build infrastructure and keep 100% of the profits from such projects forever more. This however would totally exclude China’s partner nations from the project and would amount to little more than soft imperialism.
Instead, China seeks to cultivate win-win partnerships by including the partner nation in question at all stages of a joint project. In this sense, China is willing to share the benefits and the responsibilities as is normal in a genuine partnership of any kind. Implicit in such relationships is the reality that every now and then one side will negate some of its responsibilities. In the case of Sri Lanka, the government simply bit off more than it could chew and in agreeing to take over Hambantota port, Beijing actually saved Colombo both money and grief.
While Sri Lanka clearly did not think ahead before signing the final agreements regarding Hambantota, the fact is that the port is there and being run by Chinese operations means that it is nevertheless still bringing added value to the Sri Lankan economy. Even if for example China took operational control/ownership of Zambia’s international airport, China would still be working towards making Zambia’s airport more functional and attractive. It goes without saying that having a functional and attractive airport brings added value to any economy irrespective of who owns the airport. This is for example true of England’s Heathrow airport which is operated by a company originating in Spain.
The fact of the matter is whether a Chinese project in a foreign nation goes well (as such things typically do) or whether they require some sort of reassessment as many kinds of projects throughout the world do, China is always blamed by those sowing Sinophobic narratives when in reality China is engaging in normal business practices yet tends to be hated by those infected with a zero-sum mentality because China tends to have a larger success record in foreign infrastructure projects than do rivals including the US and India.
Another problem that arises is that when nations take a step back from deals with China to reconsider – something Sri Lanka clearly did not do though it very well could have done, China absolutely gets the blame here too from those who see the world through a zero-sum prism. When Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad looked to suspend some of the vanity projects that his corrupt predecessor Najib Razak agreed to begin building with Chinese companies, he was, according to some hyper-Sinophobic media outlets “Standing up to China”. In reality he was simply revising business deals the way the new head of a private company would do so with a partner company after taking over from a failed predecessor. There was no anti-China malice in Mahathir’s revisions of deals – just normal business practices.
When understood holistically, it becomes clear that Sinophobic governments and media outlets tend to blame China no matter what it does, even when Beijing works to secure bespoke deals on a win-win model with any willing and able partner. The fact that China requires partners to exercise joint responsibility in exchange for sharing in the joint success of a project is in fact the opposite of exploitation – it is geo-economic empowerment. Ironically, those who criticise China the most are those whose records of partnerships with developing nations have been the most historically scandalous.
Belt and Road therefore is a holistic global economic connectivity drive that seeks to bring peace to the wider world by increasing the prosperity of all partner nations on a win-win model. In order to accomplish this, China has and continues to help developing partners to modernise their physical infrastructure, clean up the environment, procure sustainable energy technologies such as solar panels and help to invest in modern medical care in nations where this sector has fallen behind.
China likewise works with partner nations to build new physical connectivity corridors which can help goods and people to move more easily and more cost effectively between nations and continents. China is also always willing to pursue fair and transparent free trading deals which maximise economic benefits to all parties.
Finally, China’s win-win model offers bespoke and realistic solutions to all partners on the basis of respecting the sovereign and cultural characteristics of all nations, while working to employ bespoke developmental models which are the right fit for those seeking sustainable economic development.
Taken as a whole, Belt and Road is fundamentally a global move to create a world in which the hostility, competition and wars of the past will give way to a new mentality that allows people to experience a world at peace with itself, owing to a shared endeavour to create wealth collectively rather than competitively. In this sense, Belt and Road is the path to a new golden era of global harmony.