Belt and Road Project Strengthens the Role of China

The Belt and Road (BRI) is a significant project, especially for the developing countries of South and Southeast Asia, as well as for some African countries. It strengthens the role of China, which is gradually regaining its status as an economic superpower, and contributes to the development of a multi-polar globe. However, it is too early to say that the initiative will constitute one of the main elements of a new world order or a “new Marshall Plan”. Too many obstacles and contradictions are associated with the implementation of this project. 

The key concern is the growing financial dependence on China and unfavourable conditions for participation in the Chinese initiative. The transfer of the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka to China for 99 years in exchange for a debt write-off clearly shows what can happen to countries that cannot repay their debts to Beijing. Now the Maldives are heavily indebted, and are asking China for debt restructuring. Malaysia and Pakistan have revised the conditions for their participation in the BRI after new leaders came to power. This suggests that the societies of these countries do not have an unquestionably positive attitude towards Chinese projects. Other countries which are participants in the Belt and Road project may follow their example. 

An additional difficulty for the implementation of the BRI is an ambiguous attitude of the developed countries: some are positive, others are hostile. So, the press release by the European Commission about relations with China, published on March 12, 2019, on the one hand calls China “partner for cooperation and negotiations,” but on the other – the “economic and systemic competitor.” The United States took an especially tough stance towards the Chinese project. On November 17, 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence spoke out with harsh criticism against the BRI and said that the United States “offers the best option.” Here we must keep in mind that this statement was made on the background of trade war between the United States and China. However, even if the United States and China can come to an agreement and stop the trade war escalation, one cannot expect the United States to sit idle while China is building up its economic influence in the world. 

China has recently stepped up its efforts to promote the Belt and Road Project and ensure that it has a positive image. A landmark event was Italy’s accession to the project, making it the first of the G7 countries to be involved in the BRI. Although the reaction of the EU and the USA to this event was rather cold, this does not negate the fact that Italy’s joining the project is an important success for China. This suggests that China’s BRI project may be of interest not only to developing economies, but also to developed ones. 

The BRI presents both opportunities and threats for Russia. Russia can benefit from its participation in the Chinese project due to the realization of its transit potential, increasing its own production of goods and services, accelerating economic growth, as well as strengthening its partnership with China. But it can also lose due to the growth of dependence on the Chinese economy, increased competition between transport routes passing through Russia, and alternative routes that can earn through the implementation of the BRI project. Participation in the project may cause new disagreements within the Eurasian Economic Union, if the member countries cannot work out a unified position in relation to the Chinese project, which should take into account common interests. Today, Russia and China have a sufficiently strong relationship, which makes it possible to say that Russia will be able to defend its interests in the Belt and Road project. The main challenge is in taking a more proactive stance.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.