Beijing briefing: is the Belt and Road going nowhere?

Scaling back infrastructure plans and investment in the Global South could cause China problems, says Yu Jie.

The World Today Published 3 August 2022 Updated 18 October 2022 2 minute READ

Over the past two decades, China specialists around the world have tried to analyze Beijing’s approach to developing countries in the Global South, including Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia and the Pacific islands.
China’s relationships with nations in these regions vary considerably. In some, ideology or geography are the biggest influencing factors; for others, economic and commercial gains matter most. However, many of Beijing’s recent engagements have attracted more criticism than praise. A domestic economic downturn means that Beijing has tightened its belt, spending less on overseas development.

When President Xi Jinping came to power, he was keen to highlight how China’s power could shape and dictate the global agenda across multilateral platforms. His vision was for China to project discursive power and become an agenda-setter rather than a rule-follower. The Global South is the route to fulfilling his proposal.

To this end, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the latest Global Development Initiative are the means to Beijing’s ends. The former, launched in 2013, focuses on building physical infrastructure linking Global South countries; the latter aims to allow development through grants and capacity-building in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

China’s engagements with Africa and Latin America seem characterized by the rapid extension of Chinese finance to resource-rich African states, particularly oil producers, since the early 2000s. From 2003, for example, oil-backed infrastructure loans were made to the Angolan government for reconstruction after decades of civil conflict. By 2016, they totalled some $15 billion. 

However, Beijing’s appetite for offering cheap loans in exchange for natural resources has shrunk. It faces a dilemma between protecting the value of its investments while also defending its strategic interests and maintaining its self-image as a partner, not a predator, of Africa.

Some of China’s Global South investments include serious climate and financial risks

Beijing has historically preferred bilateral relationships for its development finance and investments over multilateral ones. This allows China control over the terms and conditions, while demonstrating its unwillingness to accept without question rules and frameworks devised years ago by western countries.

China has already realized that some elements of its engagements with the Global South are no longer the flavour of the day, partly because some of its programmes include serious climate and financial risks without proper third-party due diligence in place. 

Growth through gigantic infrastructure investments of the sort that drove China’s own economic miracle is not a panacea applicable everywhere. Nor is relentlessly seeking endorsements from its neighbours and other countries from afar.

China wants to be a ‘brother’ to the Global South

Ideologically, China wants to be seen and respected as a leader of the Global South. Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic has maintained a ‘brotherly’ relationship with developing countries, notably in the UN context, where it remains a member of the G77 group of developing nations. 

The West has responded to China’s development agenda with its own infrastructure programmes, such as Washington’s Build Back Better World and the European Union’s Global Gateway. 

Great power rivalry should not be ignored, but it shouldn’t blind world powers to the need for collaboration in tackling global poverty and sustainable development. Nor should Beijing’s efforts to adjust its diplomatic and aid programmes to become a likeable partner of choice in search of a better economic future, be disregarded.

Developing countries recovering from the pandemic crave meaningful assistance rather than diplomatic rhetoric

Since launching BRI, China has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into building infrastructure in the Global South. And many developing countries hope that advanced economies and China can continue to act to alleviate poverty. But the brakes have been applied to Beijing’s spree as a result of China’s domestic economic slowdown. It has no wish to continue spending its foreign reserves.

To go forward, China must remain open to what others want – or fear – from Beijing’s development initiatives and infrastructure investments. Many developing countries, facing insurmountable costs and damage exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, crave meaningful assistance rather than diplomatic rhetoric. 

The ultimate test of Beijing’s economic statecraft is whether it can engage with the Global South beyond relationships built on financial resources and political capital. It must also become more self-aware of how its words and deeds are received – and then act accordingly. Showering dollars and renminbi is not always guaranteed to win hearts and minds. In this respect, Beijing has more bridges to build.