Launched in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is widely understood as a geopolitical strategy to create a new, Sino-centric order in Eurasia or even across the entire world. The typical view is that the BRI comprises a ‘well thought-out Chinese grand strategy’ pursued ‘to reclaim geopolitical dominance in Asia […, challenge] US dominance and […] create a Chinese-centered order’ (Bhattacharya, 2016: p. 2). Think-tanks and scholars alike describe the BRI as a ‘geopolitical and diplomatic offensive’ (Godement and Kratz, 2015: p. 2), aimed at ‘nothing less than rewriting the current geopolitical landscape’ (Fallon, 2015: p. 140), or even ‘world dominance’ (Fasslabend, 2015).
Despite Beijing’s protestations that this view misrepresents a policy intended by China as a benevolent initiative, it has quickly taken hold in Western policymaking circles – particularly in the US. In December 2018, the then National Security Advisor John Bolton (2018) stated that the BRI was about ‘advancing Chinese global dominance’. During his term in office, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (2017) claimed in October 2017 that Chinese loans to finance infrastructure projects were a form of ‘predatory economics’, designed to result in ‘financing default and the conversion of debt to equity’. Indeed, China is often said to be pursuing ‘debt-trap diplomacy’: luring poor, developing countries into agreeing unsustainable loans to pursue infrastructure projects so that, when they experience financial difficulty, Beijing can seize the asset, thereby extending its strategic or military reach. This claim, which originated in a New Delhi think-tank in 2017 with respect to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, has been widely repeated in the media and among senior policy elites across the world (Bräutigam, 2020). US Vice-President Mike Pence (2018), for example, criticized China in October 2018 for using debt-trap diplomacy in Sri Lanka to establish a ‘forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy’.
China is often said to be pursuing ‘debt-trap diplomacy’: luring poor, developing countries into agreeing unsustainable loans to pursue infrastructure projects so that, when they experience financial difficulty, Beijing can seize the asset, thereby extending its strategic or military reach.
This paper demonstrates that such views are mistaken for a number of reasons. First, the BRI is primarily an economic project; second, China’s development financing system is too fragmented and poorly coordinated to pursue detailed strategic objectives, notwithstanding leaders and central agencies’ efforts at loosely guiding the BRI’s broad direction; and, third, Chinese development financing is heavily recipient-driven. China cannot and does not dictate unilaterally what is built in the name of the BRI. Developing-country governments are not hapless victims of a predatory Beijing; they – and their associated political and economic interests – determine the nature of BRI projects on their territory. Far from unfolding according to a Chinese strategic blueprint, the BRI is actually being built piecemeal, through diverse bilateral interactions. Political-economy dynamics and governance problems on both sides often result in badly conceived and poorly managed projects with substantial negative economic, political, social and environmental implications – however, this paper argues that these are often unintended consequences and do not represent part of a clever plan hatched in Beijing. Moreover, these negative effects are generating a form of blowback, forcing China to adjust its BRI approach.
This paper presents detailed case studies of Sri Lanka and Malaysia, the two most widely cited ‘victims’ of debt-trap diplomacy. In reality, the most controversial projects in these states were initiated not by China but by the recipient governments, in pursuit of their own domestic agendas. Their debt distress has not arisen predominantly from the granting of predatory Chinese loans, but rather from the misconduct of local elites and Western-dominated financial markets. China has also not benefited strategically from the upsets in these cases. It has instead faced negative reactions and pushback, though to a lesser extent than is commonly imagined, given the interests at stake in the recipient countries.
Policymakers and civil society organizations in the West and recipient countries should stop responding to the BRI as though it were a well-planned grand strategy and recognize it for what it is: an often fragmented, messy and poorly governed set of development projects. What is needed is not so much a geopolitical pushback against the BRI, but the introduction of more selective interventions to improve transparency around – and the governance of – ‘megaprojects’, supported by the provision of alternative forms of development financing.