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Minxin Pei: Belt and Road is less straightforward than planned

Beijing's grand scheme could turn out to be a financial boondoggle

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the 29 heads of state to attend the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on May 14-15.   © Pool Photo via AP

When Beijing announced its ambitious plan in 2013 to develop infrastructure connecting Asia and Europe, known as the Belt and Road Initiative, the strategic and economic logic seemed overwhelming.

With decades of experience in building large and complex infrastructure projects at home, China had accumulated world-class engineering and construction capabilities. Beijing's coffers were also overflowing with foreign exchange reserves (more than $3.2 trillion at the end of 2012). Instead of parking this mountain of cash in low-yielding U.S. treasury bonds (and subsidizing ungrateful Americans), China could invest some of it in more profitable projects, such as roads and ports.

The Belt and Road Initiative could also solve one of Beijing's economic headaches -- massive overcapacity in steel and cement, the two key ingredients in building roads and bridges. An infrastructure boom financed by Chinese money and built by Chinese companies could absorb steel and cement unneeded at home.

In geopolitical terms, the initiative also appeared to be a smart move. By connecting Asian and European countries to China through roads and ports, Beijing could reroute global commerce and greatly increase its influence.

Although it may have gotten off to a relatively slow start in the last four years, Chinese leaders have apparently decided to double down on this gamble.

Chinese President Xi Jinping convened the first BRI summit in Beijing on May 14-15. In front of 28 heads of state and 1,500 delegates from dozens of countries and international organizations, Xi pledged that China's development banks would commit an additional $100 billion in the coming years.

Since Chinese banks had already doled out $284 billion to countries included in the initiative as of the end of 2016, an additional infusion of $100 billion underscores Beijing's determination to keep the show on the road despite skepticism, lackluster initial results and huge risks.

SIGNS OF SKEPTICISM Even at the summit, skepticism was easy to detect. Except for Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, major Western countries were represented by ministers or junior officials. India did not even send a delegation. The European Union refused to support a statement on trade proposed by China at the summit because the language did not commit to rules governing transparency and standards of contracts.

But China's initiative has its own fans, especially among some of the world's more authoritarian leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan all showed. Their presence -- and the absence of nearly all the leaders of Western democracies -- reflected the underlying ideological divide created by the Belt and Road plan, the first major international development initiative launched by a powerful autocratic regime in the post-Cold War era.

Those hoping it will allow China to showcase the advantages of its version of authoritarian state capitalism will likely be disappointed. On paper, Belt and Road may seem a brilliant idea. In reality, it could be one of history's biggest white elephants.

The Chinese leaders' biggest mistake in conceiving their grand vision was to assume they could replicate abroad the favorable conditions that have allowed Beijing to spend $1 trillion a year on challenging infrastructure projects at a record pace.

China has a level of political stability that does not exist in many participating countries. Violent ethnic conflict and terrorism in China present no serious threat to security and are confined almost exclusively to Xinjiang. But in many countries in Central Asia and South Asia they would make building and maintaining infrastructure more expensive and vulnerable.

In addition, the Chinese state owns all the land and can evict farmers and urban residents without paying them much or having to worry about courts, the media, opposition parties or violent protests (they do occur but are invariably suppressed). In other countries, land acquisition will cost far more, in terms of both time and compensation. If governments in these countries try to emulate China and kick the owners off the land without adequate compensation, they should expect fierce resistance. In January, a riot broke out in Sri Lanka when the government tried to requisition private land for an industrial zone being developed with Chinese financing.

Beijing may also have assumed that, since China provides the financing, it should be able to control the contracting process. Specifically, it should be able to demand that Chinese materials and construction companies be used. Chinese leaders should know better. In developing countries, where most of the projects will be located, infrastructure contracting represents a lucrative opportunity for official corruption.

BEST-LAID PLANS On purely economic grounds, China is fully justified to insist on using its companies and materials to ensure quality and timeliness. But why would powerful elites in other countries throw away such opportunities to make a killing at China's expense? They will insist on picking their own construction firms and materials. Besides defeating the main purpose, namely exporting excess capacity in construction and heavy industry, such an outcome will guarantee corruption, shoddy quality and poor financial performance.

Finally, debt financing of infrastructure may have worked in China mainly because the country's rapid economic growth could support rising debt and help infrastructure generate sufficient returns. It is too optimistic to assume that countries that borrow heavily from China to finance their BRI projects will be able to service their debts. In some cases, these countries are simply too poor to take on the mountain of debt needed to build big-ticket infrastructure projects.

For example, China is currently building a 418-km railway at a cost of $6 billion in Laos, an impoverished Southeast Asian country with a gross domestic product of about $12 billion. In other cases, weak economic growth will make projects uneconomical and unable to service their debt. In the case of default on Chinese loans used to finance the projects, we should expect a lose-lose situation and deterioration of relations between China and its debtors.

China will have limited leverage over its debtors and may get pennies on the dollar if the hundreds of billions of dollars in Belt and Road projects become dud loans. Chinese taxpayers will be left holding the bag. But governments which have borrowed from China will be worse off as well. Their default on Chinese loans would cut their credit ratings and block their access to credit markets.

Because of these economic fundamentals, the actual progress of the whole initiative has been modest so far, despite Beijing's propaganda blitz. According to China's Ministry of Commerce, total construction and engineering contracts signed by China in countries that have expressed an interest in participating since 2014 amounted to $304.9 billion. Since a significant portion of these contracts may be unrelated, China's actual amount of spending on the initiative could be much less.

Ironically, the lackluster record of the plan so far may be a blessing in disguise. China's economic conditions have deteriorated since it was unveiled four years ago. The country's foreign exchange reserves have dipped below $3 trillion due to capital flight, reducing China's capacity to finance projects. China's own debt level has risen dramatically, requiring all the resources Beijing can muster, including its hoard of hard currencies, to stave off a potential financial crisis.

Given the huge risks and doubtful economic returns, Beijing may be making a huge mistake by doubling down on the scheme. The smarter thing to do is to quit while it appears to be still ahead.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "China's Crony Capitalism" (2016)

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