Strings, what strings? President Xi Jinping has promised there will be “no political strings attached” when it comes to funding for Belt and Road projects in Africa.
Launched in a fanfare of state-media publicity by Xi in 2013, the B&R blueprint has become an extension of China’s global ambitions and the centerpiece of its economic foreign policy.
At the heart of his vision are a web of ‘New Silk Road’ superhighways, connecting China with 68 countries and 4.4 billion people across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe in a maze of multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure projects.
So far, loans from Beijing have been used to build roads, rail networks, ports and power plants in countries dotted around Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
“China’s investment in Africa comes with no political strings attached,” Xi told a high-level meeting with African leaders and business representatives before the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, or FOCAC, on Monday.
During the past three months, the B&R program has come under fire with questions being asked about the sheer scale of the venture. There have even been claims that the “New Silk Roads” resemble old fashion “debt book diplomacy.”
Last week, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pulled out of a major China-inspired railway project because of the costs, following Myanmar’s decision to scale back plans for a port due to debt risks.
Elsewhere, Nepal has been trying to halt construction on two Chinese-built hydroelectric dams, while a rail link through Laos could end up being worth half of its GDP.
Gareth Evans, the former foreign minister of Australia, has gone as far as to claim that Laos and Cambodia are now “wholly owned subsidiaries of China” after borrowing more than US$5 billion.
Naturally, Beijing has rejected these accusations, with Xi insisting the Belt and Road is not a “China club.” “[We] do not interfere in Africa’s internal affairs and China does not impose its will on Africa,” he said.
“Resources for our cooperation are not to be spent on any vanity projects, but in places where they count the most,” he added in Beijing.
Still, Xi pointed out last week in a speech to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the B&R that major developments should be commercially viable to reduce investment risks.
“[This] is not a scheme to form an exclusive club or bloc against others,” he said. “Rather it is about greater openness, sharing and mutual benefit,” he added.
For critics of the “New Silk Roads,” the jury is still out.