Five years ago, a vision was laid out of a transformation of global transportation networks, sprawling from Asia to Europe, injecting much-needed infrastructure investment into developing countries.
In the last several weeks, during what would have otherwise been a momentous occasion to celebrate the anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative’s debut, Beijing has been put on the defensive.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments several weeks ago commemorating the BRI touted “broad support” from countries involved. But they came following Malaysia’s high-profile cancellation of two large China-funded projects and amid renewed criticisms of the initiative in Pakistan.
In both cases, the reevaluation of Belt and Road deals came on the heels of elections which, to some extent, reflected voter attitudes regarding lack of transparency in local government dealings with China. The election of Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia, in particular, was seen as a referendum on agreements with China, and he is following through on his campaign promises.
Pakistan and China made an effort to smooth over differences aired publicly by The Financial Times this week, with statements from both sides pushing back on the newspaper’s characterization. While a statement from Pakistan’s commerce minister, Abdul Razak Dawood, said his comments to the newspaper were taken out of context, China’s embassy called the reporting “ill-intentioned.”
But, despite Islamabad’s agreement this week to expand economic cooperation with China and invite third-party investment, the controversy in Pakistan is undeniable, according to lawmakers who decry what they see as a lack of transparency and due diligence.
Such headlines are nothing new and follow controversies surrounding the debt burdens racked up in Sri Lanka and Myanmar along with accusations that China’s interest lies more in expanding its strategic foothold than it does merely in increasing commerce.
But the concurrent pushback from newly elected governments in two key BRI governments, while overshadowing successful projects, may provide motivation for Beijing to adapt its approach.
“It’s not a bad thing,” Wang Huiyao, president of the Beijing-based research organization Center for China and Globalization, told Asia Times. Acknowledging criticisms of certain projects, he suggested this presents an opportunity for China to adjust its approach.
“It’s just like the trade war that now makes China more open and think about how to reform,” he said, adding: “sometimes a bad thing can become a good thing.”
Wang expressed the view that one way to address some of these problems would be to push for more participation and multilateral deals, an aim that Beijing appears to be pursuing with the agreement reached this week with Pakistan.
David Lampton, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, put the recent controversies in perspective.
“Yes, the problems people talk about are real, but the media herd is looking at the pimples on the face of Asia,” he wrote in an email to Asia Times.
Lampton, who spent the summer conducting interviews in Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Thailand for an upcoming book on the subject, stressed that, while there will be ups and downs, the region is transforming. That is thanks in no small part to much-needed Chinese resources.
“One reality is that the Chinese-Southeast Asian landmass, and indeed the Southeast Asian archipelago, is integrating. There is growing connectivity through rails, highways, and ports (not to mention cyber),” he noted. “China does have money, China does have technology, and China increasingly has skilled human resources.”
For Wang, he says China’s role in BRI projects is simply that of an Angel investor.
“What China is doing is, China is putting the seed money and then, hopefully, there will an A round, B round, C round, so we can get these projects rolling,” he said.
While the BRI’s fifth anniversary was marred in recent weeks by the pushback in Pakistan and Malaysia, another opportunity for Beijing to showcase the initiative’s appeal for more participation will come next year, during the second Belt and Road Forum. The first forum, held in 2017, attracted foreign heads of state from 29 countries, but leaders from the US, Europe, and Japan were conspicuously absent. India declined to even send a representative.
Beijing will no doubt be looking at the participation, or lack thereof, in next year’s event of holdouts such as India, and most of the developed world, including those who have signed on to other China-led efforts such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.
For critics and supporters of BRI alike, it will shed light on who is willing to embrace Xi Jinping’s invitation to what he described last month as “an open and inclusive process rather than an exclusive bloc or ‘China club.’”