Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before a bilateral meeting during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on May 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Etienne Oliveau/Pool
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before a bilateral meeting during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on May 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Etienne Oliveau/Pool

Western critics continue to pour cold water on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious and well-planned architecture connecting the massive Eurasian landmass through a system of roads, railways and ports. They complain that it lacks transparency, erodes trade standards set up by the West, is financially too huge for China to handle, is self-serving, and is a deceptive vehicle for China to dominate the world, just to name a few.

They insist that the fact India and most countries in the West are snubbing the BRI is proof that the Chinese initiative is going nowhere or will likely fail. However, judging from the response of a large number of prominent economists and world business and political leaders, the critics may be exaggerating their claims.

In 2016, two-way trade between China and the more than 60 countries along the BRI corridor approached US$1 trillion, and China invested more than $2 billion in these countries in addition to infrastructure investment funded by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Silk Road Fund. At the recent Belt and Road Forum, China pledged to invest about $120 billion over the next few years in the countries participating in the initiative.

The consensus among analysts, participating nations and multinational institutions is that the BRI in fact fits into the United Nations Development Agenda of promoting economic growth, eradicating poverty and enhancing all facets of globalization.

Inclusive, interconnected development

The BRI is a Chinese initiative, but China does not seek to control it, but wants equal participation, as symbolized by the Roundtable Summit of 29 world leaders attending the forum. Leaders from big and small countries were welcomed to express their views on how the BRI should be managed and operated.

The goal of the additional infrastructure construction, trade and investment in industries is that it will trickle down to the masses of the participating countries in the form of greater employment opportunities.

The Chinese-funded $55 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project is expected to spur economic growth in one of the most impoverished regions of Pakistan, which would lift millions of Pakistanis out of poverty as well as connecting China to the Middle East and beyond. Enhanced economic opportunities would also minimize conflicts between Pakistan and Baluchistan-based rebels complaining about poverty and central-government neglect.

The BRI offers the same opportunities for such countries as Myanmar, the Philippines and other poor underdeveloped nations in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Many in the US, Japan and the UK recognize the benefits that the BRI can bring, and those countries sent high-level delegations to the May 14-15 Belt and Road Forum and have expressed interest in participating. Actually, it may be that it is the business communities of these countries that are pushing their governments to participate in the BRI, because Washington and Tokyo remain cool to the Chinese trade initiative.

Why the skepticism?

Some critics claim that the BRI lacks transparency, suggesting that China may have sinister motives for promoting the initiative. Michael Pillsbury argues in his book The Hundred-Year Marathon that the communist government is using the BRI as a “Trojan horse” to supplant the US as the world hegemon by 2049. His reasoning is that China did not become “one of us” and that Chinese leaders are “deceptive”, derived from playing Go, a game he claims uses deception (instead of strategy as in chess) to defeat opponents. Others insist that China intends to use the BRI as an outlet for its industrial overcapacity.

However, Pillsbury’s theory is purely speculative if not absurd, because it is based on the Chinese game of Go and the fact that China did not turn out the way Washington expected. Go is a strategy game like chess, each player trying to surround his or her opponent with as many stones as possible to defeat the other. But Pillsbury prefers to label it a game of deception.

While it is true that China prefers a different development path and ideology than the United States, it has not shown any sign of challenging US hegemony. It is also true that China desires to export surplus products, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, because importing nations would be buying lower-priced goods, the very reason nations  trade.

Another criticism is that the roads and railways to be built may go “nowhere”, suggesting a waste of money and a huge financial burden for participating countries. They suggest that shipping goods by sea is just as efficient and less costly. And China may have “imperial” designs in that owing it too much money could turn borrowing nations into Chinese “colonies” or “vassal” states.

However, such critics neglect to mention that it takes twice as long to ship products by sea as by rail or truck. Time is money, and the quicker a transaction is completed, the greater the volume of business and profit.

As for being overwhelmed with too much debt, nations should only borrow as much as they can handle. The loans can be serviced with the additional wealth being generated by the investment. And there is no indication that China wants to “colonize” less developed nations; it only wishes to share its development experience.

Inadequate infrastructure is a major reason nations remain underdeveloped and impoverished. To that end, the developing nations along the BRI corridor should learn from the Chinese adage “No road, no wealth.” It was huge investment in roads, railways, ports and other infrastructure that created the Chinese “economic miracle”.

Snubs may be motivated by geopolitics

The lack of enthusiasm for the BRI by the West and India is motivated by domestic politics or geopolitics. Individually, most member states of the European Union have embraced the BRI, as they showed by sending their heads of state or senior government officials to the May 14-15 forum. Brussels is concerned about losing influence because China chooses to forge bilateral relations with individual states in Eastern, Central and Western Europe. Another EU concern is the “dumping” of Chinese industrial overcapacity. A third is EU suspicion of Chinese state-owned enterprises not being transparent.

As for the US, overwhelmingly large numbers of businesses and many states and cities want a piece of the BRI pie, but have been curtailed by anti-China politicians in Washington. It does not matter that China is the United States’ largest trade partner and a major benefactor, it is communist and therefore evil.

India’s snub of the BRI is motivated by geopolitics, in that its arch-enemy, Pakistan, is China’s “all weather friend”. The CPEC is a sore point because it runs through the disputed Kashmir region.

It is a shame that the West and India allow politics or geopolitics to get in the way of participating fully in the BRI. China is either their No 2 or largest trade partner, and forging a closer relationship would bring even greater volumes of trade and investment. Besides, BRI participation is voluntary – a country can opt out any time it wants.

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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