Controversy has dogged China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with Malaysia canceling infrastructure projects worth US$23 billion during the summer because of the exorbitant cost.
But while that was the most high-profile case, Beijing is finding that multi-billion-dollar investments are increasingly becoming major election issues in the least expected places.
The most recent example was in Sierra Leone, a small West African nation of seven million which has been ravaged by civil war and outbreaks of Ebola. In March, a fiercely fought election revolved largely around a new airport financed by China.
The deal was canceled on October 5, as widely expected, after the defeat of the All People’s Congress (APC) and the election of Julius Maada Bio as president. Ahead of the vote, Maada Bio labeled the APC’s position that BRI investment could reinvigorate Sierra Leone as “a sham.”
Questions over Maldives’ debts
In the Maldives, another election has put China’s ambitions in question, with so-called “pro-Beijing” incumbent Abdulla Yameen defeated by “pro-Western” Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
During the course of his five-year rule, Yameen piled up debts with China worth $1.3 billion, or a quarter of its gross domestic product, with 17 Chinese-financed projects. It remains questionable whether the Maldives’ new leader can pivot out of China’s financial clutches to India and the West.
Nevertheless, in the past few months, BRI projects worth approximately $30 billion have been canceled across the region.
Just how much that $30 billion actually amounts to in terms of BRI investment so far is up for debate. According to a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping reported in the China Daily, Beijing has invested more than $60 billion along Belt and Road routes.
That would mean that some 50% of BRI investment has been canceled, and yet more is under threat due to local opposition.
But other sources note that given the ad-hoc and vastly expansive nature of the project, Xi’s estimate of BRI spending could be way off the mark.
Take the case of China agreeing to write-off Sri Lanka’s debt in exchange for a 99-year lease of Hambantota Port.
Then consider that Hambantota is just one of 42 ports that China is constructing worldwide, according to Voice of America. How many of these are white elephants or “debt traps” and how much money is involved in total is unknown. The reason is that everything from theme parks to summer camps in China is classified as BRI projects.
Speaking to ‘The Guardian’, Winslow Robertson, a specialist in China-Africa relations, described the BRI as less a centrally planned initiative than a poorly overseen attempt at soft-power branding. “Who determines what is a Belt and Road project or a Belt and Road country? Nobody is sure. Everything and nothing is Belt and Road,” Robertson said.
The only certainty is that, if the BRI is indeed a branding effort, it may not have failed completely, but it is far from a universally popular product and is facing pushback.
Pushback and ‘BRI indigestion’
The pushback is taking place not only in cash-strapped nations such as Sierra Leone, the Maldives and Pakistan, where a Chinese-financed “Silk Road” rail project was recently cut by $2 billion, but in the United States.
Just over a week ago, US President Donald Trump signed a bill that created an aid agency that is understood to be largely focused on countering China “dollar diplomacy.”
The newly formed United States International Development Finance Corporation will, the New York Times reported, have “authority to provide $60 billion in loans, loan guarantees and insurance to companies willing to do business in developing nations.”
For Trump, the move is a significant reversal, as the Council on Foreign Relations points out, remarking: “It looks as though concern about China’s growing influence in developing countries has been the driver of the administration’s new embrace of development assistance and soft power.”
Speaking to the Voice of America, Oh Ei Sun, of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, recently referred to continuing cancellations and the ever-shifting landscape of Chinese global investment as a case of “Belt and Road indigestion.”
Many projects will be canceled, many will be stalled, but many others will go regardless. However, he also noted, that will only be the case when the China model of “roll it out and economic growth will follow” fits local conditions.
Looking ahead, the challenge for China is finding such ideal conditions. If it does not, the BRI could end up lost in a world of tightened belts and meandering roads. This, in turn, would leave China relatively isolated as a geopolitical power.