Experts React: China’s Belt and Road Initiative Turns Five

Jonathan Hillman

Senior Fellow, Simon Chair in Political Economy, and Director, Reconnecting Asia Project

Five years ago, President Xi Jinping unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a vast investment scheme cloaked in the rhetoric of cooperation and designed to pave the way for China's transition to great power status. Instead, it has become a roller coaster that Beijing struggles to control.
The BRI's highs have been mainly diplomatic and symbolic. Large, often unrealistic investment numbers have attracted more than 80 countries. Several countries have announced their intention to link their development strategies with the BRI. Conflating demand for investment with the approval of the BRI, Chinese officials have even claimed the BRI is a new and improved form of globalization.
The BRI's lows are more recent and profound, touching issues of security and sovereignty. Concerns are rising about unsustainable debt, unstated strategic motives, corruption, bias toward Chinese companies, and environmental and social impacts.
But how much control do Chinese officials actually have over the BRI? According to Xi and other senior officials, the BRI includes six economic corridors that will carry goods, people, and data across Asia and beyond. But our research shows that Chinese investment is just as likely to go outside five of those corridors as within them.
The exception is the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is the only corridor that connects China with a single country. China's power plants, roads, and other projects along the CPEC total some $62 billion in investment and have helped create a debt crisis in Pakistan. 

The gap between China’s official plans and actual activities suggests interest groups are skewing Xi’s signature initiative. Without specific criteria for what qualifies, the BRI has grown to encompass cyberspace, the Arctic, and even outer space, and there are now BRI-branded fashion shows, marathons, and art exhibits. As the list of functions and geographies grows, more interest groups enter the battle for spoils.
To put the BRI on a more stable path, Beijing should introduce criteria for what projects qualify. Xi has said the BRI will not become a "Chinese Club”; accordingly, China should stop pressuring countries to join and focus on raising the bar for individual projects. This shift in focus would help persuade skeptics that the BRI is serious about global development rather than China's geopolitical agenda.
This contribution is an abridged version of China's Belt and Roller Coaster.

Taiya Smith

Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy and National Security

The environmental impact of China’s BRI appears to be catching up with it. Earlier this month, Pakistan announced that its new government will review Chinese investments and renegotiate a trade agreement signed more than a decade ago that it says unfairly benefits Chinese companies and offers insufficient environmental standards. Indonesia similarly derailed a high-speed rail line for lack of environmental impact studies, while a hydro dam project in Indonesia financed by the Bank of China and Sinohydro (China’s national hydropower authority) has been under fire for disturbing the only known habitat of the world’s rarest great ape, the Tapanuli Orangutan. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have all filed complaints about the environmental damage inflicted by BRI projects, or weak environmental planning in the planning of projects.
It’s not that China is oblivious to the environmental conundrum it is creating. In response to its emerging bad reputation and the rise of interest in “green” in mainland China, the government published the Guidance on Promoting Green Belt and Road last year. Guidance is an impressive description of what an environmentally responsible development program should look like. For instance, it touts high prioritization of environmental issues and champions concepts such as green development, common responsibility for the environment, innovation in green technology, and green finance. Specifically, it promises to “prioritize protective measures at or near the site and take good care of ecological rehabilitation.” Guidance is a significant document—one that could have been drafted by the most forward-leaning environmental NGOs.
While many government officials in Beijing are hoping to make Guidance a mainstay of BRI’s outward engagement, it remains too early to tell how impactful it will be, especially since it’s without any legal teeth. However, if China is unable to change the BRI’s environmental direction, China will be guilty of exporting to other countries, under the guise of a development program, the very same model of growth (and at times, the very same coal-fired power plants dismantled and rebuilt) that landed it in its own environmental crisis. 

Jane Nakano

Senior Fellow, Energy and National Security Program

Among the top questions regarding Beijing’s motivations behind the launch of the BRI five years ago that remain unanswered are whether the BRI is about sending China’s excess manufacturing capacity abroad and whether BRI-related energy projects would yield a net benefit to the global climate change effort. At home, clean energy is a focus of China’s power generation deployment as well as energy research and development. In fact, China has become the top clean energy investor in the world today. Clean energy is also in the mix of Chinese energy investments abroad.
Yet, the emissions implications from Chinese exports of coal-fired power plants is an issue that continues to warrant close attention. The basic and familiar challenge of data scarcity and lack of transparency associated with Chinese financing activities continue to make it challenging to track the carbon implications of BRI energy projects. But various studies suggest a significant level of lending by China’s policy banks for coal-fired power plants, many of which have used sub-critical coal technology. 
Only some years ago, China announced its commitment to “strengthen green and low-carbon policies and regulations with a view to strictly controlling public investment flowing into projects with high pollution and carbon emissions both domestically and internationally.”

Addressing carbon emissions challenge at the global level needs China to deliver on this commitment. And China seems to be in need of new means to counter some recent pushbacks to its BRI outreach from its neighbors. Delivering on the aforementioned commitment would be one such means. China has a choice: demonstrate that the country is truly ready for the global leadership or concede that it’s not yet ready to fully contribute to the protection of the global commons, which climate efforts are about.
Jonathan E. Hillman is a seniofellow with the Simon Chair in Political Economy and director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Taiya Smith is a non-resident senior associate with the Energy and National Security Program at CSIS. Jane Nakano is a senior fellow with the Energy and National Security Program at CSIS.
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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