Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2019-04-30 07:17:34 Published on Apr 30, 2019
For the moment, it is Southeast Asia and Central Asia that are at the centre of BRI and that have embraced the project wholeheartedly
A Chinese re-adjustment on BRI?

Last week, China hosted the second international forum on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded it by underscoring his initiative as a global public good, arguing that “while the Belt and Road Initiative was launched by China, its opportunities and outcomes are shared by the world.” What was remarkable about this iteration of the forum was the humility in Xi’s remarks compared to the almost hubristic nature of the first form in 2017. Stung by the pushback Chinese projects have received in the last few years, Xi was forced to concede this year that China would introduce well-recognised rules and standards in its Belt and Road projects to ensure they are of high-standard, beneficial to people and sustainable. He made it clear that “we will make sure that corporates follow international rules and standards during construction, operation, merchandise and tender and respect laws and regulations in different countries.”

The BRI Forum was well attended for sure, with 36 heads of state or government in attendance. Through it China has managed to expand its outreach to major parts of the world such as Africa and Europe. In March, Italy became the first member of the G-7 to join BRI followed by Luxembourg and Switzerland. China managed to bring in Eastern and Central Europe into its orbit by signing major infrastructure deals with the 17+1 group which now includes Greece. China has reached out to the Arab world earlier this month in a major way during the second Arab Forum on Reform and Development under the heading “Build the Belt and Road, Share Development and Prosperity.” Last month also saw China and Russia taking first serious steps towards a Polar Silk Road.

For the moment, however, it is Southeast Asia and Central Asia that are at the centre of BRI and that have embraced the project wholeheartedly. Europe too is now more prominent despite growing reservations in the major power centres of the continent. Africa, Latin America and West Asia, despite Chinese attempts are still not as prominent parts of the framework as possibly had been envisioned by Chinese initially. And South Asia is still a far cry given Indian reservations. At last week’s summit only Pakistan and Nepal were represented by their heads of governments.

While the Chinese President made a big deal about the fact that more than $64 billion worth of deals were signed during second BRI Forum last week, he was forced to contend with the fact that since BRI’s inception in 2013, the project has been dogged by controversies. Raising “concerns about opaque financing practices, poor governance and disregard for internationally accepted norms and standards” in BRI projects, the United States, despite participating in the first forum two years ago, pointedly refused to send any high-level official to this summit. The unilateral manner in which the project was conceived and conceptualised has been drawing criticism from around the world with suggestions that it is merely a strategy of trying to cement Chinese influence around the world by making nations financially dependent on Beijing by way of “debt trap diplomacy”. The normative order which Beijing is trying to push via BRI remains extremely problematic with questions about the financial and environmental sustainability of the projects becoming ever more central to the debate. States from around the world have pushed back strongly and China has been forced to recalibrate. And other major powers too have proposed their own infrastructure initiatives.

It is equally true that China has forced the world to take note of the major infrastructure deficit that has been plaguing the global economic order and forced the developed world to recognise its own limitations in offering a global economic vision. If there are concerns about the Chinese model today, then it opens up opportunities for other major powers including India to fill that vacuum by offering credible and sustainable options. And New Delhi has been taking some steps in that direction. The demand for connectivity and infrastructure is quite high and no single power is in a position to meet that. It would require a global effort. Beijing may not want it but a multilateral approach is the only way out.

During the BRI Forum last week, the Chinese President tried his best to underscore China’s good intentions and commitment to transparency and building “high-quality, sustainable, risk-resistant, reasonably-priced, and inclusive infrastructure.” He seems to have understood that his initial top- down approach has backfired, and he wants to make amends. The question remains: How far will the rest of the world go in accommodating Chinese ambitions?

This commentary originally appeared in Business Standard.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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