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Opinion

China's Belt and Road partners will not hold back for long

Pakistan and other nations grumble but have few alternatives to Beijing's billions

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan ponders how far to go in reviewing Belt and Road investments.   © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Pakistan has gone rapidly back and forth on China's giant Belt and Road Initiative this month, first hinting at a major rethink, then issuing furious denials.

Islamabad's mixed signals follow similar grumbling noises about BRI around Asia, adding to the sense that, five years after its launch, Beijing's flagship infrastructure program is in trouble. But that impression is misleading. With few alternative financing sources, China is likely to find just as many takers for its money in future.

Were Pakistan to be going cold on BRI, it would indeed be big news. It is hard to find reliable figures for the overall program's size, with estimates ranging from a few hundred billion dollars to $1 trillion. But most analysts agree that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which includes energy and transport schemes worth $62 billion, is both BRI's largest element and the heart of an ever-closer alliance between the two Asian nations.

Perhaps because of this, a Sept. 10 Financial Times report suggesting that Pakistan planned to "review or renegotiate" important parts of CPEC drew swift rebuttals from both sides. Pakistan hurriedly described its relations with China as "impregnable," even while failing to deny specifically that Imran Khan, Pakistan's cricket superstar turned Prime Minister, was indeed planning to look again at important parts of his BRI commitments.

Pakistan is hardly the first to make such unhappy noises. This week, Malaysia confirmed it had canceled three Chinese-backed oil and gas pipelines, having already put on hold a major $20 billion rail project. Its recently-elected leader Mahathir Mohamad traveled to Beijing last month and described BRI obliquely as a "new form of colonialism."

Less remarked upon but just as interesting was Myanmar's decision to scale back a large deep water port development at Kyaukpyu, in the strife-torn western state of Rakhine. Developed by China's state-run CITIC Group and with a price tag of around $10 billion, Kyaukpyu's original plan involved linking a port and special economic zone with pipelines taking oil and gas from the Bay of Bengal to Kunming in southwest China. In August Myanmar said the port investment would now be slimmed down to just $1.3 billion, according to Reuters.

To understand these reversals, it helps to get a sense of how BRI's projects are developed. Many in the West view the program as carefully planned. China likes to give this impression too, with its grand periodic announcements and maps of the Eurasian landmass crisscrossed with colorful arrows.

In truth BRI's development is often much more chaotic. Instead of being scrupulously designed from Beijing, projects in each country are just as likely to emerge from below, cooked up by local politicians working with Chinese-backed companies and banks, often supported by Chinese state government officials.

Rather than rolling out a masterful grand strategy, one senior Beijing-based official involved in infrastructure development recently described BRI to me as a frequently haphazard process, with China making up plans up as it goes along. In individual cases, this improvision can lead to projects that are larger than they need to be, as with the grandiose original plans for Myanmar's Kyaukpyu port.

It is this model that leads many critics to argue that China is intentionally entrapping its partners in debt, in the hope that Beijing will eventually be able to take control of BRI assets, as happened with Sri Lanka's port at Hambantota. Put another way, BRI now risks being viewed as a "a giant debt for equity swap," in the words of Kori Schake, the Deputy-Director General of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.

Beijing's reasons for funding BRI are many, ranging from securing energy routes to finding work for idle domestic infrastructure companies. The program is clearly designed to buy friends around Asia. It would be naive to think that it had no military or strategic component.

Even so, China's intentions are unlikely to be as deliberately mercenary as its critics suggest, not least because BRI itself is less centrally directed than is commonly assumed. More to the point, rethinking some of its financially riskier elements would be no bad thing for all involved.

Greater financial circumspection from China's partners would be wise for starters. This is especially true in a country as debt-strapped as Pakistan, where many BRI projects have been developed with little view as to their ultimate financial viability.

More central control over BRI could help China too, potentially allowing Beijing to work out more sensible criteria to explain how it seeks to develop sustainable infrastructure deals. This would also be the best way to rebut the notion that its true intention is to ensnare countries in debt traps.

Even so, any sense that BRI is soon to go into reverse should have been handily disproved in early September, when President Xi Jinping marked the program's fifth anniversary by pledging $60 billion in new loans to African nations. China has made BRI a centerpiece of Xi's rule, as well as an important source of new business for ailing state-owned infrastructure companies. More funding is likely to follow.

Last May, Xi launched China's first Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, a grand summit filled with world leaders eager to win a slice of China's largesse. For all of the recent talk of rethinks and renegotiations, none of those attending have since pulled back from the BRI entirely.

Most are developing nations with few alternatives to fund their infrastructure needs. The U.S. provides little actual money for such projects, as underlined by the meager $113 million Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's promised last month by way of increased economic assistance for the Indo-Pacific region. Other sources, for instance Japan or multilateral organizations like the Asian Development Bank, operate at a scale that is typically much smaller and slower than China's.

Put simply, for all the current grumbling, Beijing's offer of more money with fewer strings remains attractive. Next year, China is likely to host a further Belt and Road Forum. It is a safe bet that those countries now making unhappy BRI noises will turn up in force.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of "The Billionaire Raj."

 

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