This past May China hosted 28 leaders from around the world as part of their One Belt, One Road initiative. It was the largest gathering of world leaders in China since the 2008 Olympic games. The One Belt, One Road initiative, with its centerpiece being called the New Silk Road, is a massive infrastructure project that hopes to include 68 countries and cost more than $1 trillion to boost trade to meet China’s vast economic needs. With that kind of investment, China will wield a huge amount of global influence.
One Belt, One Road hopes to include countries from those that border China, all the way to those of Eastern Europe. Even African countries such as Kenya and Nigeria are on the list. The project comes with many risks, not only for China, but also by those China hopes to influence. Most of the countries China is targeting are poor nations with serious infrastructure and economic needs. Many suffer from weak governance, unstable regimes, and corruption. Dangling infrastructure projects of this size in front of those governments could be poisoned fruit.
Construction projects have already started in many countries. Laos is one of them, and it offers some insight into what that poisoned fruit may look like. The economic gains that Laos hoped to benefit from Chinese backed infrastructure projects has remained elusive. Most materials for railroad and tunnel projects are made in China at the expense of Laotian employment. Also, almost all the workers are Chinese brought into the country instead of farming out the work to locals. When the project hits its peak, it is estimated there will be 100,000 Chinese workers brought into Laos. On top of everything, it is questionable if Laos can even afford the $800 million loan China has given them.
Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council of Foreign Relations says that Sri Lanka also provides valuable lessons of the challenges potential challenges.
She explains that Sri Lanka’s secret negotiations with China under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa caused massive problems for the country. The China-backed infrastructure projects on the Port of Hambantota Port ended up saddling Sri Lanka with $8 billion of debt it could not repay. Sri Lanka negotiated a debt-for-equity swap with China to help pay off that debt. The deal granted a Chinese state-controlled firm named CMPort an 80 percent stake in a 99-year lease on the Hambantota Port. It is a deal that has led to much protest in Sri Lanka with accusations of Chinese colonialism.
One country that refused to attend One Belt, One Road gathering (Ostensibly called the Belt and Road Forum with the unintended and unfortunate acronym of BARF) was India. Instead of attending, India gave a formal statement of demands it feels the project is lacking. Those demands for One Belt, One Road are:
- “must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality”
- “must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden for communities”
- “balanced ecological and environmental protection and preservation standards”
- “transparent assessment of project costs”
- “skill and technology transfer to help long term running and maintenance of the assets created by local communities”
- “must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity”
This is a list that countries considering being part of One Belt, One Road should pay very close attention to.
But all these negatives are small details when it comes to the much larger picture of China finding its proper place in the world order. One Belt, One Road is certainly the most significant attempt to change the international order since Europe came to dominate it. As Kadira Pethiyagoda, a non-resident fellow at Brookings Doha Center puts it, “For the first time in the history of the Westphalian system, Asian and other non-European heritage countries are not only ascending to central places in the global order, but are refashioning its structure.”
For almost all of China’s 4,000-year history, it has operated as an isolationist entity. China had long believed itself to be the preeminent kingdom in the world and therefor did not need to go beyond its borders for foreign engagement. They felt they were the center of the world and their power emanated from the pure “majesty” of its kingdom. As Henry Kissinger observes, most Chinese see their country’s rise, as “a return to the normal state of affairs when China was preeminent.”
The One Belt, One Road initiative is a crash course for China’s maturing foreign policy. There are many potential problems that China will face on this project and it is questionable where these problems will lead, however, this experience, if China fully proceeds, will be invaluable. For the rest of the world the litmus test will be if China includes or excludes America and Europe as they refashion international order.