10 Years of BRI

China hosted the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in October 2023 with a lot of fanfare while highlighting what they call the Silk Road Spirit of “planning together, building together and benefitting together”. President Xi Jinping, the architect of China’s grandiose scheme of ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) in his remarks at the ceremony of the Forum unveiled a blueprint for his government’s future strategy to expand ‘Belt and Road’ cooperation from ‘physical connectivity to international connectivity’. For one thing BRI reflects China’s limited success as a rising capitalist power in global economy otherwise dominated by America and Western Europe. China’s great leap outward is too ambitious to sail smoothly. Talking day in and day out about the swan song of ‘people’, ’cooperation’ and ‘development’ doesn’t alter the basic character of capitalist investment—exploitation of nature and human resources.

Over the last 10 years more than 150 countries and over 30 international organisations have signed Belt and Road documents. It only illustrates how Chinese capitalism, though late, is trying to make its presence felt in global market. From 2013 to 2022, trade between China and BRI partner countries reached $19.1 trillion, with an average annual growth rate of 6.4 percent. It was precisely the message of the 10th anniversary of BRI.

But initial euphoria over BRI is vanishing very fast. Many see in this geo-political tool of China a kind of ‘debt trap’, particularly after the bankruptcy faced by Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Several BRI projects, including the controversial Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, the Gwadar port in Pakistan, created dangerous debt trap in those countries, leading to social unrests and civil wars. Finally Sri Lanka had to surrender its sovereign authority over the port by way of allowing China to control it exclusively. If anything Hambantota is viewed as a ‘neo-colonial outpost’ of China in the Indian Ocean, designed to keep its grip over the sea lanes. And these days people in Pakistan frequently take to streets protesting against their rulers for surrendering to the ‘Chinese neo-colonial masters’. Anti-China sentiment in Pakistan runs so high that China had to withdraw its technical experts after suicide bombing by Baloch Liberation Movement in which four Chinese staff engaged in Gwador port lost their lives. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which has been under severe criticism from Pakistan’s opposition forces, has a plan to link Gwador port with Kashgar in North West China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region which has been in the news for Beijing’s ruthless suppression of minority Muslims.

Defending their lending practices, the Chinese authorities justify their programme of action by accusing the West of spreading false propaganda against China. They say ‘Western private and public institutions owned 80 percent of Si Lanka’s debt, 70 percent of Pakistan’s and 77 percent of Zambia’s, whereas China’s share was only 10 percent,15 percent, and 17 percent, respectively, for these countries’. In other words they are equally responsible for the neo-colonial bondage these countries have been in. After all lending agencies, irrespective of their headquarters located in Western capitals or Beijing follow the same law of coercion and subjugation. Dubbing ‘loans’ as aid doesn’t make the Chinese investors more benevolent. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China do hardly differ from their global counterparts—the World Bank and the IMF, in treating the debtors.

In a press conference after the conclusion of the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on October 18, 2023, Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi, also a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, ‘hailed the conference of unity and “win-win” cooperation that has broadened the bright prospects of BRI’. But the Sri Lankan crisis doesn’t substantiate their claim that they are really promoting “win-win” game. Their client states are always at the receiving end.

Having failed to contain China’s geo-political tool called BRI Washington ‘launched the Build Back Better World (B3W) during the G7 summit in 2021’. Then came the much publicised and yet less effective ‘The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor’ on the sidelines of G20 leaders’ summit in New Delhi last year.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have made it clear that they have no ‘intention to challenge the current global order’. Development of the BRI involves massive lending plans and China is said to be assuring the West in so many sweet words that their lending business follows ‘internationally accepted rules’. If that is the case, according to their own admission, how do they differ from Washington-controlled multi-lateral funding and investment institutions is open to question.

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Vol 56, No. 28, Jan 7 - 13, 2024