Seven Years of China’s Belt and Road Initiative: How are Developing Countries Benefiting?

By Ssemanda Allawi.

In 2013 – seven years ago, Chinese president Xi Jinping gave a set of speeches where he announced the proposal of the now famous Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Xi delivered the first speech about BRI during his visit in Kazakhstan, elaborating his desire and vision of restoring the ancient silk road which offered routes from Peoples Republic of China, through Central Asia to the far Europe. In October, 2013 during his speech to Indonesian parliament, president Xi announced his maritime silk road concept to Indonesians to facilitate trade and ease movement of goods and services.

In the seven years of the project’s implementation, BRI has registered considerable achievements seeing over 29 International Organisations and over 71 countries sign or joining it. This means that more than a third of global GDP and more than two thirds of world’s population are part of the project!  This means that upon completion, the project will make the world’s largest market easy to access and traverse on both road and sea which are key in transportation and mobility of goods and services.

However, this is not without critics especially from some parts of western world with the U.S leading critics of the project with claims such as lack of transparency from Chinese authorities especially its financing while others branding the project is part of what they call China’s debt diplomacy.

However, research indicates that claims of lack of data on funding of the projects are largely wrong as a number of studies and research work  have given a clear view  of funding of this project.

Critics of China and BRI project in particular have often claimed the project is too expensive and will see developing countries fall in what they call China’s “debt diplomacy” with some western capitals branding the project Beijing’s debt trap. Many of critics have always cited Sri Lanka’s Hambantota which was leased to a Chinese firm for 99 years to help repay the country’s debts. The claims that Hambantota port was seized by China are also ambiguous considering the current state of the port if compared to how its state before the Chinese firm invested in it.

Washington has also been very critical of BRI project and generally China’s funding of infrastructure development in different parts of the world claiming that many of Beijing’s clients are  pariah states

However, some of these claims seem to be political with Washington screed of China’s growing relations with the rest of the world which they see as one way of antagonising U.S’ strategic interests. A case in point is citing Beijing’s growing relations with African state of Djibouti. In 2018, U.S’ top military commander in Africa, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser told U.S’ House Armed Services Committee that China’s state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings owning shares in Djibouti’s meant that U.S military could face “significant” consequences. Djibouti is one of many countries China considers part of its Belt Road Initiative.

In regard to Beijing’s infrastructure assistance going to undemocratic states, this is largely wrong. Most of Beijing’s borrowers are democracies with countries such as South Africa, Tanzania, Brazil, Kenya, and Tanzania. Other democratic countries that that have benefited from China’s infrastructure loans include United Kingdom (UK). China is a major investor in UK’s Hinkley Point Nuclear power plant in Somerset.

Therefore, despite critics of BRI, it can be argued that the project so far is a success. Indeed, in 2019, a study by World Bank entitled; “Belt and Road Economics: Opportunities and Risks of Transport Corridors” analysed transportation projects along the BRI routes and concluded that benefits to recipient countries and the entire world would benefit from the project. In Kenya for example, as a result of Belt Road Initiative project, the country built a 470 km railway line from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi to the coastal city of Mombasa which shortened travel time from 10 hours to five, created over 46,000 jobs and helped the country’s GDP by 1.5%.

Despite the study reporting more cases of policy impediments than infrastructure impediments – such as customs delays, bureaucracy, red tape, imports tariffs and corruption which increase trade costs, the study is a proof that BRI will play a significant role toward both social and economic development of the world.

From the above and findings of this study, it is evident that improving investment climate is a key complementary when it comes to supporting and investing in infrastructure sector. This can be realised through deep trade agreements such as the proposed Africa Continental Free Trade (AfCFTA). On Global scale, agreements such as BRI, AfCFTA and the recently reached trade liberalisation agreement between China and ASEAN, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Japan can help to eliminate tariffs which sometimes are barriers of trade.

Therefore, critics of infrastructure development should not look at infrastructural development in lenses of competition but rather putting in place facilities to aid trade. In particular, those criticising BRI branding the project a debt trap or debt diplomacy should reconsider their exaggerated claims. For example, countries that do borrow funds from China have also on many occasions borrowed from the so-called traditional donors or World Bank, IMF as well as other private bond holders. This means these countries diversify their sources of finances and thinking that they are beholden to China is ignoring key and glaring facts.

However, whereas it is very hard to present facts of the so-called debt diplomacy, there are genuine concerns when it comes to debt sustainability especially to African countries. However, these concerns should not only be tied to borrowing from China but rather all relevant lenders. This is because, unlike domestic debt, foreign debt has to be serviced using exports and this way, there are clear limits that point at how much borrowing developing or poor countries may take and continue to thrive.

In addition, the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on global economies feared to cause recession has should serve as a warning that many developing countries may find it hard to sustain their debts. Almost all countries that were projected to continue with a positive economic growth curve before covid-19 now are IMF analysis shows these countries projections were negatively impacted by covid-19 which has caused negative impact on countries exports and affected their GDP growth and hence, raising questions if these countries can sustain their debts. Indeed, many of China’s clients in Africa are in debt distress.

Early this year, China joined G20 in offering developing countries debt relief as a way of helping countries affected by Covid-19 pandemic recover. Among countries to benefit from this plan include 40 from sub-Saharan region. Despite this effort, debt moratorium alone may not be a magic bullet for Africa and other developing countries. Debt restructuring or write-downs. The challenge is that such arrangements often are done through the Paris Club of which China is not a member. However, if China wants to write-down debts on some African countries and developing countries in general, it can since it has done it before

On the other hand, the US announced a new development finance institution, also known as U.S. Development Finance Corporation (USDFC) to compete with China in offering infrastructure funding to development countries.  Though this is a positive development, this initiate alone will not bring swiping changes. Most of developing countries prefer to use Chinese funding when it comes to infrastructure funding. Though they may look generous, traditional funders and their multinational banks prefer to fund sectors such as administration, social services and the so-called democracy promotion instead of funding the much-needed infrastructure programs. For example, at first 70% of World Bank’s funding went to infrastructure but has been reducing to recently 30% despite huge funding gaps in infrastructure sectors in developing countries.

It is important to note that developing countries are still faced with shortage of funding especially in infrastructure projects which are key for development. A study by World Bank and McKinsey Global Institute found that funding for infrastructure projects such as transport and electricity is lacking, noting that to ensure a socially inclusive development by 2030, there is need to spend more than $3.3 trillions annually of which 60% of this must go to developing countries in Africa. African Development Bank (ADB) on the other hand estimates that to meet demands of their growing population, replace aging infrastructure, African countries must spend between $130-$170 billion annually on infrastructure. Also, a 2017 study by World Bank “Why We Ned to Close the Infrastructure Gap in Sub-Saharan Africa” suggested that if these countries reduce funding gaps for infrastructure, the region’s GDP per capital will grow by 1.7% and hence. All the above shows that any infrastructure assistance to developing countries should not be underestimated and hence, the view that BRI project is a positive initiate for developing countries world over.

In conclusion therefore, as studies have indicated, BRI project has more benefits if compared with challenges it may bring. Instead of critiquing the project largely to Geo and Global politics, China’s critics especially the U.S should back the project and where possible embrace and support new trade agreements such as AfCFTA to improve trade and investment climate in developing countries than only negatively criticising funders that fund developing countries projects. Also, the U.S may champion calls to reform the The Bretton Woods institutions and offer attractive alternative funding to developing countries, reduce their anti-China rhetoric and instead participate with China whenever there are efforts to offer debt relief.

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