Don’t Let China Greenwash Its Belt and Road

A version of this commentary was originally published by Nikkei Asia on October 6, 2020.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping surprised the world in late September by announcing that China would become carbon neutral by 2060. But this promise will amount to little if Xi’s signature foreign policy vision, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), continues exporting China’s environmental challenges globally. China’s poor environmental record abroad presents a strategic opportunity for the United States, if only Washington would seize it.

It has been a rough ride for China’s Belt and Road, which recently turned seven. When Xi unveiled his signature foreign policy vision, he said it aimed to “make the economic ties closer, mutual cooperation deeper, and space of development broader.” Instead, it has made developing countries’ debt unstainable, mutual suspicion deeper, and the space of development more polluted.

Washington has tried to slow the BRI juggernaut by highlighting its dangers, but on environmental issues, it has ceded to Beijing what should be a strategic advantage. The United States has put forward its vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” which waxes poetic about improving the “environment” for business, investment, and procurement. Mother Nature barely gets a nod. 

Regrettably, the Trump administration views environmental protection as weakness. This summer, in series of speeches about China, Attorney General Barr made the only reference to environmental issues when asserting that China captured rare earth production because of its lower labor costs and lighter environmental regulation. In other words, environmental protection led to strategic vulnerability.

This gets the China challenge backward. China’s environmental destruction, now being exported globally, is a weakness that a more enlightened U.S. strategy could turn to its advantage. Beijing’s BRI is giving birth to power plants that will spew dirty coal for decades, railways and roads that cut through fragile ecosystems, and dams that threaten rivers and the communities around them. Highlighting these shortcomings would reduce the BRI’s appeal and position the United States and its partners to offer better alternatives.

Leaders in Trump’s own party see the opportunity. “The U.S. has a strong, bipartisan legacy of advancing environmental conservation while promoting economic strength,” the China Task Force, led by House Republicans, noted last month. “The U.S. needs to reclaim global environmental credibility and leadership,” it urged.

But the Trump administration’s weakness on the environment is limiting cooperation with partners and allies to provide alternatives to Chinese projects. Last November, the Trump administration announced the Blue Dot Network with Australia and Japan, an effort for certifying infrastructure projects that meet agreed quality standards. However, it is struggling to get other partners to join. European countries want the Blue Dot Network to be green. 

Partners and allies are waiting for the United States to catch up. A year ago, the European Union and Japan announced the “Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure.” Sure, it does not exactly roll off the tongue, or fit neatly onto a bumper sticker. But its focus on sustainability wisely includes environmental issues. It heightens the contrast between the projects they support and the damage that China’s BRI delivers.

Instead, the Trump administration warns against China’s “debt-trap diplomacy,” which sounds tough at home, but often falls on deaf ears abroad. The threat is rather nebulous because China has seized few assets to date, and for most people, national debt is abstract, a statistic divorced from the physical world. Occasionally, it fuels accusations of neo-colonialism. But not many grassroots organizations are donning green eyeshades, important as debt sustainability is. 

But they are rising up for green issues, as Kenya’s experience shows. In 2016, local environmental groups formed a coalition called “deCOALonize” that mounted a campaign against a $2 billion Chinese-backed coal-fired power plant. For the community of Lamu, a pristine and historic coastal town, the threat was real. “We want to grow watermelons, not have coal mines,” as one activist explained to Dr. Anita Plummer, an expert on Sino-African relations.

The coalition raised awareness of the project’s environmental risks among the public, and it filed a case to halt its construction. It met with the Chinese ambassador to Kenya, who publicly acknowledged that the project’s fate was ultimately Kenya’s decision. Last summer, a Kenyan tribunal ruled in the coalition’s favor, noting that the government failed to conduct an adequate environmental assessment.

Of course, not all countries have institutions that allow grassroots organizations to effectively push back. Some governments are willing to sacrifice environmental protection for lower project costs, and China is happy to deliver projects that would not meet its own domestic standards. Both cases would benefit from U.S. support, including for independent journalism and civil society, environmental impact and life-cycle cost assessments, and financial incentives to adopt greener alternatives. 

Xi knows that China is vulnerable on environmental issues. At a gathering of world leaders in Beijing last year, “green” and “sustainable” were the salt and pepper in his speech about the next phase of BRI. To address criticism, China unveiled no less than 11 new, green initiatives under BRI, all of which are voluntary, and none of which are binding or transparent.

Without pressure, China’s new carbon commitment could become its latest greenwashing effort. The tragedy is that the Trump administration’s weakness on the environment, starting with its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and extending to over 70 actions to weaken environmental protection at home, allows even the emptiest of China’s promises to sound more plausible. This is not merely a moral failing. In the competition that will define this century, it is a strategic blunder. 

Jonathan E. Hillman is author of The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century and director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jonathan E. Hillman