In 2013, the Chinese government established an infrastructure and economic development plan for countries in the Asia Pacific region, Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe. In theory, the plan’s ultimate goal, dubbed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is to empower poorer countries to enter the global market via the development of “belt” (overland roads and railways) and “road” (maritime and sea routes) infrastructure. Critics, of course, fear that BRI is a Chinese plan to gain more global power, supplant Western financial institutions, and exert direct and indirect control over these newly constructed and vital assets.
Foreign trade network development is not new for China; almost 2,000 years ago, the Han Dynasty established the famous Silk Road, which connected Central and Southern Asia’s populations and stretched into Europe. For years, China managed trade routes that stretched for thousands of miles. However, interference by the Crusaders and Mongolian tribes resulted in economic isolation for many countries positioned along the Silk Road, and that isolation has persisted across the centuries.
Reception of China’s Belt and Road Initiative has been mixed, with some countries praising the effort and others fretting over its potential long-term implications for the balance of power, global trade, and the debt burden of poorer countries.
How Do Participating Countries Feel About the Belt and Road Initiative?
As of 2020, China has signed contracts with 137 countries and 30 international groups. While many of those countries are located in Asia, several African and Eastern European countries have also signed on. The Initiative has even stretched west, covering countries in the Caribbean and South and Central America. Altogether, two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries impacted by the BRI.
Of all the participating regions, one is fully invested in the BRI. One hundred percent of Middle Eastern countries have voiced interest in the BRI, even if they’ve not yet signed contracts with China. Africa has also seen a boom in BRI support in recent years, with contracts signed by 40 out of the continent’s 55 countries.
It’s crucial to note that participating countries are often divided over BRI projects within their own borders. There is no single point of view on China’s investments, just as we might expect; public opinion is always a distribution. For some people, taking on new Chinese debt to improve their country’s infrastructure is a necessary and valuable way of breaking into the global market. For others in the same country, the aid is not worth the risk; China could raise interest rates precipitously, foreclose on the assets in the future, or exert all kinds of undue influence, threatening the country’s sovereignty. There are also concerns that some government officials may be signing deals with Chinese firms after receiving kickbacks or other corrupt benefits.
Malaysia is one country that has voiced mixed feelings about BRI participation. Mahathir bin Mohamad, who was elected as the country’s Prime Minister in 2018, initially campaigned against BRI and canceled over $20 billion in BRI projects. However, his stance changed in 2019 when he offered “full support” for the Initiative.
Despite similar anti-BRI campaigns by other political candidates elsewhere in the world, China has still managed to sign trillions of dollars in completed, current, and future projects—including a recent contract with G7 country Italy.
The next article in this series will explore perceptions of BRI in other countries, including the United States.