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Economy

G-7's infrastructure investment plan vies to rival Belt and Road

Experts say initiative needs to harness private finance and ensure high standards

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Emmanuel Macron, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Britain's Queen Elizabeth attend a drinks reception on the sidelines of the G7 summit at the Eden Project in Cornwall, Britain, on June 11.   © Reuters

LONDON -- At last weekend's G-7 summit in Cornwall, England, leaders agreed on a new infrastructure investment partnership with a focus on "clean and green growth" in developing countries -- a plan that the group of rich democracies hopes to frame as an alternative to China's Belt and Road initiative.

The leaders' communique said the G-7 countries will "step change" their approach to infrastructure financing. Experts say the partnership's success lies in mobilizing private finance and ensuring high standards, but criticized the announcement for its lack of detail.

Chris Humphrey, research associate at think tank Overseas Development Institute, said "it's really a critical moment" when it comes to the infrastructure gap in developing countries, which is estimated to need more than $40 trillion.

Beyond the social and economic need for infrastructure and jobs, Humphrey pointed out that infrastructure being put in place now will "lock in" patterns of energy usage for the next 50 years. "If the G-7's initiative can help steer some of those projects more in a sustainable direction, I think that has got a lot of potential benefits for our ability to bring our climate trajectory back onto a more sustainable path," he told Nikkei Asia.

The G-7 will establish a task force to come up with practical proposals by this autumn. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters she hoped the G-7 would be able to present "concrete projects" at its next summit in 2022.

One of the main elements of the initiative is the promotion of an integrated approach between the public and private sector to mobilize private capital.

Matthew Goodman, senior vice president for economics at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, estimates private capital among G-7 countries amounts to a combined tens of trillions of U.S. dollars in pension and insurance money, and is key to the initiative's success.

"They're looking for long term assets, and infrastructure, in principle, is a good class of assets because it generates long term returns," he pointed out. The trouble is that infrastructure is a difficult undertaking, particularly in developing countries that have additional uncertainties and challenges.

That is why identifying bankable projects, as well as helping with capacity building so that developing countries can better negotiate contracts will be important. "It's one of the things that will reassure the big money that the governments are helping and making these projects more viable, and more subject to the rule of law," he said.

Government commitments through multilateral development banks and providing government guarantees are some elements Goodman will be looking for as these plans are fleshed out.

Humphreys of the ODI thinks the multilateral banks and bilateral agencies will play an important role because, "they can help package these assets in a way that makes them more attractive for institutional investors."

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan wait for leaders to attend a welcoming banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 26, 2019. 

Already equipped with global offices and technical expertise, they could bring together the stakeholders to develop financial instruments or mechanisms for channeling private money. With some reform, funding for project preparation and targeted direct investment from the institutions would also be catalytic, Humphreys said.

He pointed out that the G-7 can learn from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank's innovative approaches in this area.

The U.S. is particularly keen to frame the G-7 plan as an alternative to China's Belt and Road Initiative, which was unveiled by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, and now has over 100 member countries. Tens of billions of dollars are estimated to have been invested in trade routes and infrastructure, but the program has been accompanied by accusations of "debt trap" diplomacy.

The G-7 initiative is described in the communique as having a "value-driven vision" and "strong standards," aspects they are championing as the unique selling point of the plan.

Jack Barrie and Patrick Schroder at British think tank Chatham House said: "Obviously transparency and governance of investments are hugely important and should become a distinguishing feature that would show how things can be done differently, compared to the Belt and Road Initiative." The pair stressed that the initiative also needs to be demand-driven and aligned with sustainable development goals.

Their concern is that depending on the way the value-driven approach is put into practice, it could polarize international development efforts along the lines of whether recipient countries are democratic or not.

IHS Markit's Asia-Pacific Chief Economist Rajiv Biswas said the initiative also has to set very high standards in procurement processes and debt sustainability metrics. "These high infrastructure project standards should help to mobilize greater private capital flows as world capital markets toward increasingly higher ESG benchmarks," Biswas said.

It is too early to tell whether the G7-led initiative will be a viable and effective alternative to Belt and Road. While the U.S. is keen to frame it as part of its strategic competition with China, the U.K. and others have avoided this characterization and are focusing on the sustainability drive.

Goodman considers it "has the potential to be an alternative." Citing estimates showing the BRI is scaling back, he said there is an opening in the market as developing countries seek funding and investment for infrastructure that is "done in a way that works for them."

Others are not as optimistic.

"The G-7's infrastructure plan looks disappointing, with few details and no actual money beyond vague promises to mobilize private sector capital," said James Crabtree, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Asia Office.

"The onus is now on the U.S. and others in the G-7 to develop their ideas quickly into something more substantial with serious money behind it, while also involving the Quad nations in Asia. Otherwise China's BRI is going to remain a dominant global infrastructure player for the foreseeable future."

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