First announced in 2013, President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative promises, at a minimum, to improve infrastructure and connectivity between China and the rest of Eurasia. Any bold plan to finance infrastructure on a large-scale across so many low-income economies deserves a sympathetic ear and a positive reception. But many wonder how large the role can be for non-Chinese players in what is clearly an initiative of the Chinese government.
So far, Chinese state and policy banks account for the overwhelming majority of the financing – and this money then flows to Chinese enterprises, mainly state-owned. One study found that 89% of the work went to Chinese contractors on China-funded projects.
Yet, recently in Paris, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the Belt and Road was a ‘sunshine initiative’ that was open and for all to benefit from. He declared that there were to be ‘no backroom deals. There is openness and transparency.’ The Belt and Road Initiative will ‘respect international rules’ and ‘will run according to market rules’.
There are some notable instances of Belt and Road projects changing to conform more to international rules as they develop. For example, work on the Belgrade–Budapest high speed rail link originally ran into problems. Contracts were allegedly awarded to Chinese companies without following the EU-mandated competitive procurement processes. Now, the most recent round of contracts is to be awarded by tender.
Such a switch perhaps does not herald the unrestricted ‘market rules’ that Wang speaks of, but it does highlight that China is willing to turn Belt and Road towards openness in certain instances. These will be cases where it clearly brings benefits for China – but also where private sector players can be convinced of good commercial returns. These benefits are most likely to lie in three areas: scale and access, effectiveness and risk management.
Firstly, scale and access. Belt and Road can achieve greater scale if additional financing comes in alongside the current Chinese state and policy bank lending. This can come both by working together with multilateral institutions and with private sector institutions. This will in turn require defining projects or structuring financing with attractive risk-return trade-offs. In some cases, this will be feasible – in others not.
Getting bigger also necessitates initiating meaningful Belt and Road activity in more countries. As the Belgrade–Budapest rail experience has shown, approaches vary in terms of competitive tendering requirements and consideration of non-Chinese bidders. An approach that works in, say, Tajikistan, may not be effective in Poland. This is a pragmatic recognition of context that is quite separate from debates on what the ‘right’ approach to these standards should be. Both these elements suggest that a more open Belt and Road will be a larger and more far-reaching one.
Secondly, effectiveness. Despite extensive experience building infrastructure within China, many Chinese companies are much less familiar operating outside of China. Western, Japanese and Korean companies can bring their own experience to the table and help the success of these projects. By doing so, they also put competitive pressure on Chinese companies to improve and upgrade, while providing opportunities to learn. This in turn creates a stronger, more productive Chinese economy.
Beyond physical hardware, the ‘software’ is also critical to success. Again foreign companies have much to contribute. Areas such as maintenance, training, legal and accounting services are all in demand. Indeed, many such British and other companies are already actively engaged in working on projects with Chinese companies to help in these areas.
Finally, risk management. Beyond the usual project management risk of large projects, Belt and Road brings additional challenges. Many countries have weak governance, internal divisions and security issues, all within distinctively different cultures and traditions. Chinese companies with little experience of local conditions will struggle. Going it alone may provide what is an illusion of control, but exposure to social and political dynamics can rebound on China in unexpected ways.
Cooperating with others who have a history of in-country experience is a way to manage these risks. Examples would include British and Chinese cooperation both at company and governmental level in engaging in particular African countries, in partnership with the relevant country government.
Mechanisms that encourage competitive choices and restrain corruption are positive, but mechanisms that slow decision-making to a crawl also prevent countries from getting benefits of infrastructure projects. Conversely, continuing along the current path of Chinese-led investment does have some clear attractions in certain settings, at least to those directly involved. It combines the ability of Chinese policy banks to provide large-scale funding in even high-risk environments with the relevant experience and production capacity of Chinese state-owned businesses. It allows for government-to-government deals, pragmatic negotiations and all-encompassing accords, at times out of the public eye. In many cases, it is hard to make a commercial case for the investments.
But in cases where there is mutual benefit, engagement and will, there will be a role for international partnerships.