The Need for a More Nuanced Approach towards the BRI
Photo Credit: AFP
By Tridivesh Singh Maini

The Need for a More Nuanced Approach towards the BRI

Sep. 19, 2018  |     |  0 comments

While addressing the opening of the Forum of China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to allay fears of not just African countries, but other countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). President Xi, while emphasizing the mutually beneficial synergies, did try to highlight some of the problems related to BRI albeit in a very subtle manner. In the context of China-Africa cooperation, President Xi fleshed out China’s key initiatives in the continent and highlighted the assistance which Beijing will be providing in areas like agriculture, green development, and education over the next few years.


President Xi during his address made the point that no political strings were attached to Chinese investments in Africa. The Chinese President made a commitment of USD 60 billion for financing projects (this included USD 15 billion in grants, interest-free loans, and concessional loans, as well as USD 20 billion in credit lines) and also made it clear that Beijing had absolutely no intention of interfering in Africa’s internal matters. President Xi also stated that it was important that China-Africa cooperation was mutually beneficial: “China-Africa cooperation must give Chinese and African people tangible benefits and successes that can be seen, that can be felt.”


President Xi highlighted some of the important initiatives planned for the next three years. Amongst the interesting ones highlighted by the Chinese President during his address were: extra exports from Africa to China, a thrust on green development, and USD 1 billion in food aid. Apart from these, China will also be sending agricultural experts to Africa and will also be providing more scholarships to African students. All these initiatives sought to dispel the notion that China’s interests in Africa are purely linked to its own economic and geo-strategic interests. President Xi during the course of his address also noted that the sustainability of certain BRI projects need to be examined. The Chinese President made the point that the BRI was not meant to be an exclusive club. The main aim of the BRI was shared prosperity.


China’s economic and strategic influence in Africa has risen. Chinese investments in Africa — especially in areas like telecommunications and industrial parks — have surpassed USD 100 billion. Trade for the first five months of 2018 exceeded USD 80 billion. Most significantly, under the umbrella of the BRI, are the important Chinese infrastructural projects including the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway line and Kenya’s standard gauge railway from Mombasa to Nairobi.


While Africa’s dependence upon Beijing is increasing, concerns have been growing in certain quarters about the rising levels of debt in certain countries. According to a report released by the Centre for Global Development in December 2017, China’s share of debt in Djibouti, where Beijing has built an overseas military base, could rise from a staggering 85 percent to over 90 percent of GDP. Two of the big-ticket projects being funded and built by Beijing in Djibouti are a multi-purpose port at Doraleh and an international airport. Another country which is economically vulnerable according to the report is Kenya, where over 70 percent of the country’s bilateral debt is owned by China. Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a visit to Africa in March 2018 had stated that the US did not want to deny Africa access to Chinese financing, but African countries needed to be judicious and ensure that economic dependence on China does not ultimately impact their sovereignty in any way.


There have been attempts by some countries to provide alternatives to the BRI for connectivity and development in Africa. In this context, Japan and India have joined hands and have proposed the Asia Africa Growth Corridor. In terms of scale, this project may not be a match to the BRI, but the terms and conditions of assistance may be more favorable and African countries would at least have a choice.

Beijing while pursuing its strategic and economic goals has been showing pragmatism on a number of key geo-political issues, and there is no reason why it can’t display some amount of pragmatism while ensuring that the BRI retains its edge over other connectivity projects.

African leaders at the summit dismissed the criticisms made against China, saying that these criticisms were misplaced and were only meant to prevent Africa from building a closer relationship with China. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who is currently the chairman of the African Union, stated that all talk of “debt traps” was highly exaggerated and were aimed at creating a wedge between Africa and China.


Not only were these African leaders dismissive of the accusations that Beijing had expansionist tendencies, but some even went to the extent of saying that a new world order is emerging (alluding to China’s rise), and that Africa could not ignore this. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa made this point in a TV interview: “There is now a transition to a new world order and those who don't see it are blind.”


Many would attribute President Xi’s remarks as a reaction to Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad’s comments made during his recent China visit. The recently-elected Malaysian PM had stated that a new sort of colonialism was emerging, referring to China’s economic dealings with many countries, and prior to his arrival in China had scrapped two important infrastructural projects, estimated at USD 20 billion, that the previous Malaysian government had signed with China.


There are important takeaways from these recent events. First, Beijing needs to genuinely address the concerns of certain countries vis-à-vis the BRI. President Xi’s statements are welcome and show that China is keen to dispel the notions of it being “expansionist” and of it promoting “debt trap” diplomacy. Second, if PM Mahathir can stand up to China, there is no reason for leaders from other countries to put forward their concerns with regard to Chinese investments in their respective countries. This does not imply engaging in conflict.


The BRI is a massive project and Beijing cannot afford to remain in denial with regard to its shortcomings. If China is open to criticisms and willing to engage in course corrections, even incrementally, countries which have been sceptical up until now will be compelled to exhibit a degree of flexibility. Beijing while pursuing its strategic and economic goals has been showing pragmatism on a number of key geo-political issues, and there is no reason why it can’t display some amount of pragmatism while ensuring that the BRI retains its edge over other connectivity projects. “Debt trap diplomacy” will benefit neither China nor the countries which are part of the BRI.


It is also important for an alternative narrative to the BRI. While the US has raised the red flag with regards to China’s “debt-trap” diplomacy and spoken about an alternative vision for the “Indo-Pacific,” it has not come up with any coherent vision for connectivity so far. The US State Department has made some references to connectivity, but apart from Japan and India, no other stakeholder has shown any seriousness with regard to greater connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.


By canceling Chinese projects and putting forward not just Malaysia’s concerns but those of many other countries, PM Mahathir has generated an interesting debate. It remains to be seen whether this can force a rethink on the part of the Chinese. Countries which are economically vulnerable as a consequence of Chinese debt may need to be similarly assertive. Beijing on its part should correct the shortcomings of the BRI, while countries which have been critical of BRI need to work towards building alternatives. Tokyo’s flexibility with regard to the BRI while coming up with the alternative Partnership for Quality Infrastructure shows that opposing the BRI for the sake of opposition is pointless.

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