As China welcomes dozens of world leaders to Beijing for its second Belt and Road forum, it has one simple aim: relaunching President Xi Jinping’s controversial global infrastructure drive.
Since it began five years ago, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has sunk hundreds of billions into port, railway and power projects stretching from south-east Asia to central Europe. But its path has been bumpy, drawing sharp criticism over the ruinous debts that some countries have racked up amid Chinese largesse.
Xi will stress sustainable financing and transparency this week, amid the usual talk of ‘win win’ cooperation. Yet BRI’s problems are structural, not presentational. For any pledges to be meaningful, China must move beyond its present mish-mash of opaque, bilateral deals.
After bad headlines last year, BRI has in fact enjoyed a good run in recent weeks. Malaysia announced it would resume a previously cancelled high-speed rail project, while Italy’s decision to join up last month marked a further European incursion. Indeed, if attendance is any guide to success, BRI looks in fine fettle. The first forum in 2017 attracted 29 world leaders. China says 37 will turn up this week. Phillip Hammond, UK chancellor, arrives hunting deals too, just a day after news that Chinese technology group Huawei will be allowed to help build 5G networks in Britain.
Even so, three interlinked problems remain at the heart of President Xi’s pet project, all of which must be addressed if BRI is to move beyond the pitfalls that have damaged its reputation.
The first and most obvious is debt. Critics allege that China ‘traps’ its BRI partners financially, often pointing to a debt-for-equity deal that handed China control of a port in Sri Lanka. These claims are exaggerated — few other projects have ended up this way. Yet poorer nations from Laos to Tajikistan are still signing up to vastly expensive Chinese schemes that offer poor value for money while straining their public finances.
The second problem is transparency. Despite its grand scale there is still no reliable list of BRI projects, no disclosure of the lending standards China follows, nor even the amount China has invested. Beijing claims more than $1 trillion; independent estimates suggest perhaps a few hundred billion. Either way, it will be hard for China to convince doubters on debts until it is open about the criteria it uses in deciding who to lend to and why.
BRI’s third and most important challenge is its muddled organization. Despite BRI’s image as a centrally run mega-project, China has allowed many deals to be struck locally, via a mix of state-backed companies, public sector banks and freewheeling regional governments. And it is here that the problems began.
Infrastructure deals are notoriously complex, especially for transnational projects like high-speed rail. Renegotiations are common, even for experienced bodies like the World Bank. Yet BRI has repeatedly seen terms negotiated behind closed doors, in countries such as Malaysia and Pakistan, come unstuck in the face of public outcry.
Rather than seeking to trap others with debt, China’s central government more often has to step in to fix dubious projects agreed by underlings lower down the chain.
These negotiations go one of two ways. Either China’s partners complain and win terms, as was true in Malaysia and in Myanmar over a multibillion-dollar deep-sea port. Or, as in the case of Sri Lanka, the renegotiations go in China’s favour, but at the cost of accusations of debt trickery. In both cases China looks bad.
Speaking last year, Xi responded to criticism of BRI by describing it as ‘an open platform for cooperation’. Yet, so far, he has proved resistant to the step that would deliver on that vision — namely turning BRI into an institution with open standards and international partners.
The reasons for his reluctance are obvious. Ending BRI’s reliance on loose bilateral deals would limit Beijing’s room for geopolitical manoeuvre. Yet what might be lost in political flexibility could easily be gained in economic credibility, while avoiding some of the painful renegotiations that have dogged many BRI projects.
At a time when China’s economy is slowing and its current account surplus is shrinking, formalising and institutionalising, BRI could also help avoid wasting scarce public resources on white elephant projects. China even has an easy template in the form of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Beijing-based institution that has won plaudits for its project quality and openness since it started in 2016.
Whichever model is chosen, a dose of Chinese-style central planning is called for, along with more openness. Without it, the oddly chaotic and decentralised model pioneered in BRI’s first five years is unlikely to help the project thrive over the next five.
This article was originally published in the Financial Times.