China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Debates, Impacts, and Trends
China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Debates, Impacts, and Trends
- Xiang Li, Xiang LiSchool of International Studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo China
- Mengqi ShaoMengqi ShaoSchool of International Studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo China
- and May Tan-MullinsMay Tan-MullinsJames Cook University
President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI一带一路) in 2013. The BRI, which will pass through over 60 countries in Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa, aims at improving and creating new trading routes and investment opportunities. It consists of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI), and is a continuation of China’s “opening up” policy. It comprises six overland and one maritime economic cooperation corridors, supporting the expansion of Chinese enterprises abroad to facilitate industrial upgrading at home, paving the way for Chinese outward foreign direct investment (OFDI) and trade abroad, and advancing the internationalization of the Chinese currency. In addition, the project is welcomed by recipient countries due to their need for infrastructure investment. China remains the biggest player in the initiation and implementation of BRI projects. As such, the impact of Chinese projects on the economic, political, cultural, and environmental fabric of host countries will likely be dramatic, especially since many BRI projects are large-scale infrastructure projects that cut across different regions and states. The COVID-19 pandemic further implicated the progress of BRI projects in these areas.
- Foreign Policy
- Political Geography
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013 in Kazakhstan. By January 2020, 138 countries and 31 international organizations had signed formal agreements for BRI (Belt and Road Portal, 2020a). From Beijing’s perspective, the BRI is attractive because it enables China to engage with other fast-emerging Asian markets through infrastructure, trade, and investment cooperation. Regarding trade, the export of “made in China” goods to BRI countries will help absorb many of China’s manufactured goods, alleviate domestic overcapacity problems, and stimulate domestic economic growth through the upgrading of its industries (Yu, 2017). Moreover, by initiating new economic corridors such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China aims not only to boost economic cooperation but also to enhance diplomatic ties and partnerships between itself and participant countries (Irshad et al., 2015). One specific example of this is a $46 billion OFDI pledge by President Xi in April 2015 as part of an investment and cooperation agreement concluded during a visit to Pakistan (Zhang et al., 2017).
The BRI International Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing on May 14–15, 2017, was one of the highest-profile international meetings on the BRI Initiative which brought together 29 heads of state and government, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting coincided with China’s increasing confidence in diplomatic affairs and its assumption of global leadership in many areas, such as climate change and global trade relations. This growing confidence was encapsulated in a statement by President Xi in 2017: “It will be an era for all of us, the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation, to strive with one heart to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. It will be an era that sees China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind” (Xi, 2017b).
President Xi indicated in his keynote speech that the BRI will become increasingly important in terms of strategic initiative as it enables China to expand its overseas capacity, trade, and investment. Indeed, Chinese merchandise exports and imports via the BRI had grown to $736 billion and $580 billion, respectively, by the end of 2019 (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2020). According to the latest data released by the American Enterprise Institute, BRI investment peaked at $46 billion in early 2019 but dropped to $23.4 billion in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The energy and transport sectors occupied the highest percentage of investment into the BRI regions, at 39.33% and 24.54% of total investment, respectively (Green BRI Center, 2020).
Despite the positive results from the BRI projects, criticisms of the results of BRI projects have emerged among the host countries and global observers. A report from the Financial Times suggests that there are at least 234 BRI projects suffering setbacks due to allegations of corruption and lack of social acceptance (Kynge, 2018). For instance, one infrastructural project in Malaysia was suspended because of a corruption scandal involving its Malaysian cooperation partner while another railway project in Thailand was put on hold for years because of protests from Thai citizens. Western countries have also heavily criticized the BRI for creating debt burdens for developing countries, and some have termed the BRI “debt-trap diplomacy” (Gerstel, 2018).
The BRI has a far-reaching impact on the development of politics, trade, and cultural exchange in the relevant regions and cities. More important, it puts China on center stage in terms of diplomacy, trade and investment, and soft power. Drawing evidence from various case studies—namely, Port of Piraeus development by the China COSCO Shipping Group (COSCO) in Greece, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and Inspur’s smart tax project in Zambia, the Shwe Natural Gas Project in Myanmar—the BRI phenomenon will be investigated. We first discuss debates surrounding BRI investment, then delve into the positive and negative outcomes of these projects in the economic, political, cultural, and environmental fields, and conclude with the impact of COVID-19 on the BRI and discuss possible future research directions.
Economic Debates and Impact of the BRI
One of the most significant ramifications of the BRI is its effect on the economies of both China and the recipient countries. As the BRI is one of the world’s largest platforms for trade and finance collaboration, its projects have received positive and negative reactions (Rana, 2017; Tian, 2016; World Bank, 2019). For example, the World Bank (2019) recognizes the economic benefits and the spillover benefits brought by the BRI in improving infrastructure connectivity. Various scholars also support the claim that BRI projects have reduced trade costs, which boosts trade, increases global real income, enhances foreign investment, and reduces poverty (Maliszewska & van der Mensbrugghe, 2019; World Bank, 2019; Zhai, 2018).
Transport investment, particularly, is expected to deliver positive outcomes in economic development in participating countries and globally (World Bank, 2019). With reduced road and sea transport and accompanying trade facilitation, a considerable reduction is expected in delivery times, bringing tangible reductions in trade costs, thereby promoting gross domestic product (GDP) growth (Villafuerte et al., 2016). GDP growth can be achieved through an increased growth in exports and more diversified production (World Bank, 2019). For example, the BRI will deliver perishable products or time-sensitive goods on time (Baniya et al., 2020; World Bank, 2019) and help with the growth of foreign direct investment (FDI), hence boosting GDP and welfare, which would ultimately help reduce poverty (Maliszewska & van der Mensbrugghe, 2019; World Bank, 2019). Globally, the BRI is estimated to have helped to lift 8.7 million people out of extreme poverty and 34 million out of moderate poverty (Maliszewska & van der Mensbrugghe, 2019). However, the positive trade impact of BRI transport projects is variable, depending on the decrease in trade time value and relative comparative advantage in a given region (Maliszewska & van der Mensbrugghe, 2019; World Bank, 2019).
Although the BRI aims to attract trade and foreign investment along the economic corridors, the World Bank has raised several concerns. The connectivity provided through the BRI is expected to reshape trade relations between participating countries. Its network effect has the potential to reshape the economic geography of both BRI and non-BRI countries through new ways of thinking and the new business opportunities it brings (Rana, 2017; World Bank, 2019). But many low-income countries in BRI corridor economies might not benefit from this project, as their infrastructure is not mature enough to be fully engaged with regional and world markets, leading to lower trade volumes, smaller FDI inflows, and marginal participation in global value chains (World Bank, 2019). Trade agreements and investment policies are also often restrictive and fragmented, which results in a lack of cross-regional integration (World Bank, 2019). This will result in an uneven distribution of gains across countries, which will be more pronounced in low-income countries (World Bank, 2019).
Also, the BRI is a massive initiative involving multiple countries with different situations, which one project’s effectiveness relies on others’ (World Bank, 2019). An example is rail track gauges. Transcontinental and intercountry transport infrastructure will be highly beneficial to the transit states and landlocked countries; however, it has been argued that the economic viability of these projects might be limited due to costly replacement of existing track (Rana, 2017). Therefore, considerable cooperation within regions is necessary to unlock the new trade opportunities (World Bank, 2019). Another potential economic gain from the BRI could be the income from tourism; however, this income is dependent on improved security and reduced travel times (Rana, 2017).
Finally, BRI projects possess common economic risks in most infrastructural projects (World Bank, 2019). In comparison to other large-scale foreign investors, China is subjected to the accusation of neocolonial exploitation due to the use of Chinese labor in the projects, the relative insularity of the project execution agencies, and the high interest rates of its loans (Rana, 2017): hence, the criticism of “debt trap diplomacy.” These are serious concerns, especially for those countries with existing debt vulnerabilities and rising public debt (World Bank, 2019). Weak economic fundamentals and lack of governance further increase the risks to debt sustainability (World Bank, 2019). As such, countries like Pakistan, Nepal, and Myanmar started to withdraw or annulate from BRI projects (Lee, 2017; Lo & Zhou, 2017; Rechberg & Guo, 2019).
As most of the BRI projects are in the implementation phase with outcomes still unclear, it is still difficult to conclude at this juncture if and which participating countries will gain substantially from the improved connectivity of the BRI (World Bank, 2019) and investment projects. However, it has been argued that the BRI will positively affect non-BRI countries because the denser transport network will reduce the trade costs of their exports (Maliszewska & van der Mensbrugghe, 2019; World Bank, 2019). The benefits brought by the BRI to Asia, Africa, Europe, and other regions will be transformative even if only half of the projects are eventually completed (Maliszewska & van der Mensbrugghe, 2019; Rana, 2017). A big concern of the economic impact of BRI is the existing mismatch of absorptive capacity between China and BRI participating countries (Rechberg & Guo, 2019). The high absorptive capacity between China and European countries facilitates knowledge transmission among trading partners (Y. Li et al., 2018).
A notable example for China’s impressive economic expansion and an increased global presence through the BRI is the investment in the Port of Piraeus in Greece by COSCO. COSCO’s investment in Piraeus is considered one of the most significant investments worldwide and the largest in Europe under the BRI framework (Le Corre, 2018; Mathews, 2017). COSCO’s investment in Piraeus, brought both positive and negative consequences for Greece (Liu & Davarinou, 2019). These consequences can be categorized: (a) the increased economic development of Piraeus in the Mediterranean region and (b) discontent from the local community due to negative spillover from the project.
The Port of Piraeus, situated to the southwest of Athens, is the country’s largest port and one of the biggest shipyard facilities in the Mediterranean region and strategically positioned in the international supply chain and shipping trade routes between China and Europe. Due to this unique position, China expressed a strong interest in the Port of Piraeus (Bastian, 2017; Davarinou et al., 2016; Van der Putten, 2014) and subsequently announced its role in the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (Daly, 2014; Ferrari & Tei, 2020; Van der Putten & Meijnders, 2015; Xinhua, 2014). China aims to transform it into a leading international shipping hub for products and services from Asia to Europe as part of the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Route (Ferrari & Tei, 2020; Liu & Davarinou, 2019; Xinhua, 2016). Xiaoli Zou (2016), the former Chinese ambassador in Greece, has commented that Piraeus is the “dragon’s head” that leads China–Europe cooperation under the BRI framework. Since 2009, bilateral economic relations between China and Greece have rapidly increased (Huliaras & Petropoulos, 2014).
In 2008, COSCO’s bid, the most valuable, won the tender for the operation of Piers II and III for a period of 35 years (Karlis & Polemis, 2018; Xinhua, 2016). The agreement not only allows COSCO to invest in new piers but also to connect the port’s terminals with the national rail system (Arvis et al., 2018). With the connection to the EuroAsia rail link, this project provides a complementary route for the new shipping solutions to all major European markets (Ferrari & Tei, 2020). In 2016, COSCO took more than 67% of the stock of the port of Piraeus with an investment agreement signed with the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund. This made COSCO the main shareholder of the Piraeus Port Authority (Ferrari & Tei, 2020; Karlis & Polemis, 2018; Xinhua, 2016). From 2007 to 2016, Piraeus achieved a 168% income increase with a 3.7 million TEU (20-foot equivalent unit) of annual container throughput (Notteboom, 2017; World Bank, 2019). As such, Piraeus ranked as the seventh largest container port in Europe in 2017 (Notteboom, 2017; Stone News, 2018). The world ranking of the Port of Piraeus also raised significantly from 93rd in 2008 to 30th in 2018 (Liu & Davarinou, 2019; World Shipping Council, 2019). The Liner Shipping Connectivity Index of Greece also increased from 27 in 2008 to 59 in 2018 (World Bank, 2019).
According to Liu and Davarinou (2019), the positive impact of the investment in the Port of Piraeus on Greece includes stimulating infrastructure investment, enhancing the port’s competitiveness, boosting the local economy, and attracting more foreign investment. The Port of Piraeus has significantly improved its competitiveness through upgraded infrastructure and the addition of more advanced equipment (Greek Travel Pages, 2019; Liu & Davarinou, 2019). With COSCO’s continual engagement and massive investment, the Port of Piraeus has been labeled the world’s fastest-growing port in 2013 and 2018 (Menzel, 2014; “Piraeus to become . . .,” 2018). The German newspaper Die Zeit predicted that Piraeus would be the largest port in the Mediterranean by 2019 (Investopress, 2018). COSCO has built-up at least 55 routes from the Port of Piraeus, reaching the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Middle East, North West Europe, North America, and Asia Pacific (Liu & Davarinou, 2019). The port achieved a nearly twofold increase in profit (before tax) for two consecutive years from €11.0m in 2016 to €21.2m in 2017 to €42.3m in 2018 (Investopress, 2018; Piraeus, 2019). Net profit also saw a 68.6% increase from €6.7m in 2016 to €11.0m in 2017, and a further 147% increase to €27.9m in 2018 (Investopress, 2018; Liu & Davarinou, 2019). In total, the through shipment of goods has more than tripled since China became a shareholder in Piraeus (Investopress, 2018; Stone News, 2018). From 2010 to 2015, there was a dramatic increase in the port’s capacity from 685,000 to 3 million containers (Xinhua, 2016). The Chinese investment has also contributed to Greece’s economic development, with over 3,000 jobs created directly through the port’s expansion and more than 10,000 indirect jobs created (China Daily, 2019; Jun, 2017; Piraeus, 2019; Xinhua, 2016).
The COSCO investment in Piraeus has also attracted other significant multinationals to cooperate with the Piraeus Container Terminal (PCT) to distribute their products in the region (Xinhua, 2016). Many competitive enterprises from China, Greece, and other countries, including the European ones, are investing or seeking investment opportunities in Greece, which could be potentially helpful in aiding Greece’s economic recovery (Liu & Davarinou, 2019; Stone News, 2018). Ioannis Tzoannos, an economics professor and former general secretary of the Greek shipping ministry, commented: “I believe it is a positive development for the Greek economy, a key parameter in the Maritime Silk Road which enhances the strategic importance of Piraeus” (Xinhua, 2016). Similarly, Christos Staikos, chair of Enterprise Greece, a Greek investment promotion body, noted that China is becoming one of the main strategic partners in helping Greece boost its economy (Xinhua, 2016). In spring 2018, Piraeus was included in “The Alliance” and “Ocean Alliance” as a pivotal port for both services in Europe-Asia and Med-Americas. It is significant that Piraeus was initially absent from the latter routing, which demonstrates its increasing importance within the COSCO network (Ferrari & Tei, 2020).
However, setbacks have been identified in COSCO’s investment in the Port of Piraeus. COSCO’s master plan became contentious when local interests were considered. The proposal for construction of an upscale shopping mall within the COSCO-managed Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) was strongly opposed by local merchants before being approved (Business Daily, 2020; “New Piraeus cruise. . .,” 2019). The development of a logistics centre in Keratsini is also seen as a direct competitor to the local Thriasio Freight Centre (Mpellos, 2019). The port project also experienced strikes from 2006 to 2009 and the port’s privatization process was suspended in 2015 (Beijing News, 2015; Kousta, 2010). Furthermore, multiple stakeholders have drawn attention to the lack of interaction and communication with the public and local communities. This has increased in parallel with China’s growing economic engagement in Greece, along with issues of lack of transparency related to Chinese investment policy and data (Liu & Davarinou, 2019). Apart from the challenges raised from within Greece, China’s investment in Piraeus has also drawn concerns from other European Union (EU) countries, such as Germany and France, which has discouraged further investment in Greece from other Chinese enterprises (Liu & Davarinou, 2019). In summary, COSCO’s investment in Piraeus has vastly improved its strategic and economic position in the Mediterranean region while having negative outcomes on the economic interests of the local community due to competition and lack of local consultation.
Another flagship project in the ambitious BRI strategy, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is one of the main pillars of the regional connectivity from Southwestern China to Pakistan. It is arguably the most contentious project in the region. Local communities have extensively criticized CPEC for the financial implications of the project and absorptive capacity difficulties for Pakistani labor to take skilled positions instead of logistically supports jobs (Ahmed, 2019; Rechberg & Guo, 2019). The CPEC is an economic opportunity for Pakistan to address domestic challenges to its government, which might help facilitate new markets, trade opportunities, and foreign investments (Taj et al., 2018).
The CPEC framework includes numerous infrastructure and energy projects (e.g., the construction of Gwader Port) (Shaikh et al., 2016; Zhang & Belgibayev, 2014). Other infrastructure projects include the Kashgar-Gwadar railway track, expanding the Karakoram Highway (KKH), upgrading Gwadar airport, building a cross-country tunnel, and improving existing highways (Z. S. Ahmed, 2019). However, energy projects take a larger proportional of the investment in the CPEC, equivalent to 70% of the CPEC funding budget. This includes gas and oil pipelines to Kashgar and Iran, coal power plants, wind farms, and solar and hydropower projects across Pakistan (Ahmed, 2019; INP, 2019). These investments have largely helped Pakistan to overcome its energy crisis (Shahid, 2020). However, at the national level, increased debt brought on by CPEC project is seen as a burden to Pakistan with “uncomfortable” colonial overtones (Selmier, 2018). The extensive tax breaks on customs, sales, income, withholding, and other tax concessions related to CPEC projects have reduced tax revenue for the country (Selmier, 2018; Shah, 2016). The CPEC projects have been labeled “game over” instead of a “game changer” from economists in Pakistan (Ahmed, 2017).
Besides Europe and Asia, the economic impact of BRI in Africa is also evident. In January 2017, Inspur, a Chinese technology company, defeated eight other global companies to win the bid of integrated software and hardware of the IMS system in its tax control terminal, server, storage, and network equipment, and its end-to-end intelligent tax integration solution. This project exported China’s tax system and the concept of information construction to Zambia (Si, 2019; M. Wang, 2019) and has improved both technology development and increased tax revenues in Zambia. The Inspur’s Smart Tax Project in Zambia has brought about 800 million Zambian Kwacha (ZMW) of tax revenue and achieved a 30% increase in Zambia’s national tax revenue in the first stage of the project (Si, 2019; M. Wang, 2019). In addition, Wang Junqiang points out that information management has greatly improved tax transparency, optimized the investment environment, and injected vitality into local economic development (M. Wang, 2019). Winnie Natala Chibesakunda, Zambian Ambassador to China, further expressed her appreciation to Inspur for helping with revenue mobilization and spearheading the modernization of revenue management in Zambia, which should increase cooperation in other areas (Y. Ni, 2017).
Nevertheless, potential corruption incidents were reported by the United Progressive People President Saviour Chishimba. With regard to evidence related to corrupt practices on the ZMW140 million ($14 million) fiscal project, Chishimba argued that Chinese companies “have become conduits of plunder and paymasters for politicians and senior civil servants” in Zambia (Chishimba, 2017). He indicated that Chinese contractors had dubiously won the bid for the invoicing management system with a much lower price compared with the project cost of ZMW 84,017,576.10 but ended up with an inflated contract value of ZMW140 million by the final negotiation period (Chabala, 2017; Chishimba, 2017). This situation jeopardized many credible and competitive Zambian companies (Chabala, 2017; Chishimba, 2017).
In sum, the economic outcomes of the various BRI projects are highly differentiated, depending on local conditions and the capacity of local actors to capitalize on and manage the investments. Although there are numerous examples of positive economic outcomes, the negative impacts from these projects related to governance issues such as lack of state capacity to manage these investments, and lack of consultation with the local communities of host countries requires further improvements in order to get the buy-in from the local stakeholders.
Political Debates and Impact of the BRI
China’s economy has achieved rapid development in the last 30 years, largely as a result of its reform and opening-up policies (Wuzhati et al., 2017). At the moment, with the substantial economic grounds as the world’s second largest economy and the largest trading country (Viljakainen, 2020), China has gained growing international influence. As an important geopolitical factor facing the world today (BBC, 2021), China has the potential to challenge American hegemony and redistribute the global power (Flint & Zhu, 2019; Kim, 2019). The BRI has been labeled one of the latest examples of China’s challenge to the global order and American hegemony in the world (Kim, 2019).
The main purpose of the BRI claimed by government ministries is to bring together countries along the landmass and maritime BRI routes and promote socioeconomic development via investment in trade, industry, infrastructure, and science (NDRC, MEP, MFA, & MOFCOM, 2015). Despite the economic benefits, the main driving force behind the BRI is China’s domestic ambitions and its global political considerations (Trang, 2020). There is general consensus among scholars that China has been dissatisfied with the traditional global governance structure and leadership dominated by old European industrial powers and the United States (Gu et al., 2019; He, 2016; H. Wang, 2015). Therefore, the BRI is conceived as a platform constructed to challenge the international cooperation model (Igbal et al., 2019; Shambaugh, 2013; Zhao et al., 2019). It is also considered a tool to redistribute global power, with China positioned as the new center of power (Gu et al., 2019).
As an initiative aimed at international cooperation, comparison has been made between BRI and another global initiative: The Marshall Plan initiated by the United States in the post-War World II period (Clover & Hornby, 2015; Shen & Chan, 2018). Although the two major initiatives are not comparable on scale and invested capital (Marshall Plan is only one-twelfth of the BRI investment portfolio) (Ma, 2016), there are similarities between the two initiatives. According to Shen and Chen (2018), the Marshall Plan and BRI share similar aims in terms of promoting exports, countering competitors, and promoting public diplomacy. Additionally, both initiatives put their country’s economic influence into the political and diplomatic spheres in an attempt to resolve political conflicts and increase global influence (Frieden, 2007).
Drawing on China’s own experience in domestic development and South–South cooperation, the BRI is considered as an extension of China’s global economic and foreign policy aspirations to promote the economic and political relations with Belt and Road countries. (Ferdinand, 2016; Gu et al., 2019). Consistent with China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Flint & Zhu, 2019), the core principles of BRI cooperation are “no strings attached” and “nonintervention,” which pose a challenge to the Western development model (Gransow & Price, 2019; Peng & Tok, 2016; Zhang, 2013). Therefore, the BRI does not require any improvement in governance or regulatory framework for the host countries to receive funding or loans.
The Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, jointly issued by different ministries within the Chinese government, states “the Initiative is harmonious and inclusive. It advocates tolerance among civilizations, respects the paths and modes of development chosen by different countries, and supports dialogues among different civilizations on the principles of seeking common ground while shelving differences and drawing on each other’s strengths so that all countries can coexist in peace for common prosperity” (NDRC, MEP, MFA, & MOFCOM, 2015). These conditions have been favored by some BRI host countries and research has shown that the Chinese development model has gained support from both officials and civil society in Africa (Keuleers, 2015). Scholars in Hungary also state that the Chinese approach is more compatible with Hungarian development compared to the U.S. international cooperation model (Moldicz & Novak, 2017).
Such cooperation model allows China to rally small and medium-sized countries on its side as a counterweight to hegemony of major countries, thereby shedding light on the possibility of the BRI to break the status quo (Trang, 2020). Moreover, given that America and some European countries, such as France, are turning to adopting protectionism, the BRI may gain the support from the countries relying heavily on free trade (Pham, 2020). BRI thus would challenge the current global hegemony, especially in Eurasia, and consolidate China’s position in global governance if the BRI succeeds in accordance with Beijing’s hopes (Rolland, 2017; Zhu, 2017).
The influence on geopolitical landscape is mainly derived from the enhancement of transportation connectivity though roads, railways, and ports. After several years of development, BRI’s railway project has connected China with the neighborhood countries, and even more distant countries in Africa (Gulie, 2020; Wu, 2020). The enhancement of transportation connectivity may improve cooperation between the BRI host countries and China, their economic diversity, and their access to the international market, thereby reducing their reliance on major powers in the region (Scharnberg et al., 2020). For example, the construction of transportation routes to Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea Ports connecting Europe and China without passing Russia threatens Russian hegemony in central Asia (Peyrouse, 2017). Specifically, given its indispensable position on the BRI transportation routes, Kazakhstan may increase imports from other countries and reduce the import dependence on Russian finished products and refined resources (Pepe, 2015).
Similarly, the geographical connectivity of Pakistan in the Middle East region has been increased through the construction and improvement of transportation infrastructure of the CPEC, including Pakistan’s Gwader Port (Shaikh et al., 2016; Zhang & Belgibayev, 2014), Kashgar-Gwadar railway track, and the Karakoram Highway (KKH) (Ahmed, 2019). There is a commonly held view that the geostrategic ties between China and Pakistan will help Islamabad counterbalance India’s mounting influence in South Asia (Ahmed, 2019). Meanwhile, the investment in the Gwadar Port, the centerpiece of the CPEC, has improved the maritime security of Pakistan in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea (Kalim, 2016), which triggers a positive change in the impression of Pakistan internationally (Gul, 2017). Thus, the BRI development has served as a game-changer for Pakistan’s position in Central Asia, and globally, regarding its geoeconomic and geopolitical agendas (Kalim, 2016; Shahid, 2020).
Besides the improvement of connectivity with neighborhood states, BRI also contributes to the international transportation network connecting China and distant Belt and Road countries such as African countries (Gulie, 2020; Wu, 2020; Wuzhati et al., 2017). For instance, more than $8 billion has been invested to renew the 800-mile-long railway in Angola (Gulie, 2020). The railway connects the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the port of Lobito in Angola and further promotes the transfer of resources, such as manganese and cobalt, to China (Gulie, 2020). In addition, significant investment in infrastructure without imposing a democratic system provides African countries an alternative to the United States and Europe, which is an opportunity for development for these African countries. Thus, the dominance of the United States and the EU in Africa are challenged by China and its BRI projects (Vines, 2010).
Despite the fact that the BRI underlines the principle of “nonintervention” in human rights ideologies and political systems of host countries, the Chinese development model has been spread and adapted and adopted by some countries. Nazarbayev, the former president of Kazakhstan, once claimed that the powerful Chinese model may be more beneficial to Kazakhstan than the Western model (Nazarbayev, 2017). There are similarities between the modernization plan promoted by Nazarbayev’s pragmatism and China’s typical modernization model (Scharnberg et al., 2020). That implies that the BRI may influence the “forms of state” of Kazakhstan, thereby spreading a new type of “world order” in Central Asia (Scharnberg et al., 2020).
Moreover, BRI is influencing global governance by setting up the institutions such as Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Though AIIB has no official connection with the BRI, it serves as main funding agency for BRI’s projects (Tekdal, 2018) and further demonstrates China’s ambition and ability to reshape global economic order (Kim, 2019). At the moment, AIIB seems to be increasingly becoming a serious rival of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) led by the United States and Japan (Kim, 2019). Additionally, through financing BRI’s infrastructure projects, the AIIB may help to realize China’s geopolitical goal of regional integration in Asia (Flint & Zhu, 2019). Thus, it could be concluded that the BRI is a mixture of “economic integration, regional influence, and global geopolitical competition,” which could transform politics on multiple perspectives and levels (Flint & Zhu, 2019). Furthermore, it may simultaneously create the cooperation and conflict among nations, thereby transforming the global geopolitical landscape.
However, with the continuous expansion of Beijing’s influence alongside the BRI, there has been a geopolitical backlash (Balding, 2018). The governments of India, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan are reluctant to join the BRI (Gu et al., 2019). In addition, these countries also propose alternative strategies to counter China’s influence; for example, the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP) and the German Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific (Germany Federal Government, 2020; U.S. Department of State, 2019). The United States issued the official FOIP Report with systematic explanation of the U.S. strategic plan for the region, which officially remarked that FOIP, as a U.S. national strategy, has entered a stage of substantive improvement with Southeast Asia in June 2019 (U.S. Department of State, 2019). The FOIP encompasses the vision of providing the partner country autonomy in development decision-making rather than building large-scale projects. Thus, the confrontation between FOIP and BRI has triggered unprecedented and growing debates about FOIP being conducted in a geopolitical way to resist Beijing (Varghese, 2019). However, these initiatives are unlikely to succeed due to China’s economic dominance and geographical proximity.
A prerequisite of gaining legitimacy to become a successful agenda-setting actor is to be a responsible player in the existing norms and institutions (Benabdallah, 2019a; Bull, 1995). Educational programs, dissemination of official policy, and exchange programs are seen as ways states can improve public opinion of the country and promoting new norms (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). The BRI has become a platform to assimilate existing norms and diffuse alternative China-produced new norms and practices in the current global order (Benabdallah, 2019a; Bull, 1995). One of the main strategies for achieving such a grand goal is to ensure interaction between peoples along the BRI route even with significant cultural disparities (Du, 2016). This is what we will turn to now.
Cultural Debates and Impact of the BRI
China has a long history of including cultural diplomacy in its foreign policy practices (David, 2003). This element has gained more attention in contemporary Chinese foreign policy with China’s quest for image-building (Benabdallah, 2019a). In the vision and actions of jointly building Belt and Road, the people-to-people bond has been “the public support for implementing the Initiative” (NDRC, MEP, MFA, & MOFCOM, 2015).
People-to-people connectivity has been placed at the center of BRI’s policymaking to create bonds with people who favor dialogue over confrontation (Benabdallah, 2019a). As President Xi Jinping (2017a) mentioned, “Friendship, which derives from close contact between the people, holds the key to sound state-to-state relations.” China has been using philanthropy and education as two main strategies to create cultural basins and invented tradition to further its global reach in BRI (Kuah, 2019). The philanthropy includes foreign aids toward technical cooperation, human resource development cooperation, dispatching medical teams, emergency humanitarian aid, and volunteer programs (Kuah, 2019; State Council, 2014). China’s humanitarian aid to reduce poverty and improve livelihood “adheres to the principles of not imposing any political conditions, not interfering in the internal affairs of the recipient countries and fully respecting their right to independently choosing their own paths and models of development” (State Council, 2014). In the education field, the Chinese government has since provided 10,000 scholarships to countries along the Belt and Road every year (NDRC, MEP, MFA, & MOFCOM, 2015). In 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued the Education Action Plan for the Belt and Road Initiative to emphasize various plans in creating a bright future for the education sector in BRI (Ministry of Education, 2016). In addition, similar to the centrality of professional training and technology transfer in past China-Africa relations, the BRI proposed investments in human resource developments that give a lot of attention to people-to-people relations and knowledge production to the developing world (Benabdallah, 2019a, 2019b).
The professional training programs organized by the Chinese government for BRI participating countries have a great potential to promote Chinese expert knowledge and technical know-how and expose the trainees in developing countries to China’s experience in development (Benabdallah, 2016, 2019a). It offers human capacity-building and vocational training programs but, at the same time, promotes Chinese expertise and China’s success story narrative to other developing states. This is seen as a relatively cost-efficient way to brand a positive image of China transferring its expertise to the recipient nations (Benabdallah, 2019a; King, 2013).
Even though China emphasizes that the BRI is to achieve common development but is not to be tied to governance-related conditionality or to favor certain ideological leanings over others, the focus on human relations and personal infrastructure has been treated as a way to persuade/attract other actors to integrate its norms and values (Benabdallah, 2019a; Hackenesch, 2015). Rather than a rhetorical move, Chinese-sponsored sharing of professional and academic expertise with developing countries along BRI sits within a discursive framework as Chinese authorities’ positively respond to their interests and demands in China’s own experience with development (Benabdallah, 2019a). To be specific, the cultural exchange activities will help participants better understand and recognize the BRI, which includes a series of educational and cultural exchanges and dissemination of expert skills (NDRC, MEP, MFA, & MOFCOM, 2015). New standards for communication and energy technology among recipient countries are being developed (Gonçalves, 2017). The Chinese government funds elites, high-ranking officials, academics, and other professionals in China for sharing China’s experience to help speed up the industrialization process in developing countries (Benabdallah, 2019a; Deng et al., 2020).China is also willing to provide funding and technology to participating BRI countries (Deng et al., 2020). Yet, there are still concerns on whether China has adequate technological capabilities to generate technological spillovers and whether the recipient countries have related absorptive ability to effectively identify and use imported technology (Deng et al., 2020).
Another example of the positive outcomes of these exchanges is the CPEC. This project has improved Pakistan’s profile in its effort to bring stability and reduce security concerns. To ensure security of CPEC projects, Pakistan has created two special divisions within Operation Zarb-e-Azb with the remit to proactively target terrorists (Ahmedli, 2020; Ghazanfar, 2016; Gul, 2017; Hali, 2020). These upgraded security operations have reduced the effectiveness of terrorist and insurgent groups in Pakistan (Ahmed, 2019). According to the U.S. State Department, there has been a remarkable decline in terrorist attacks in Pakistan from 1,823 in 2014 to 1,009 in 2015, with a reduction in the total deaths in the attacks from 1,761 in 2014 to 1,081 in 2015 (Iqbal, 2016). The ongoing operations against terrorists to provide a safe environment for CPEC projects have achieved significant successes, creating an environment conducive to attracting foreign investment in Pakistan (Ahmed, 2019; Gul, 2017) and its local communities.
Another positive impact of the CPEC is enhancing the internal political stability of Pakistan. Considering that Pakistan is a state with deeply rooted ethnic divisions, the CPEC has included the engagement of all provincial stakeholders to achieve a consensus on equitable distribution of CPEC resources among the provinces (Hussain, 2017). Since its establishment in 1947, Pakistan has struggled with friction between ethnic groups (Ahmed, 2019). During the negotiation process related to CPEC routes, the federal government of Pakistan was urged to communicate with minority ethnic groups and prioritize underdeveloped areas (Ahmar, 2014). Generating employment and developing much needed infrastructure the CPEC has helped in ameliorating the underlying structural tensions in Pakistani society by reducing poverty and countering Baluchi insurgency (Ahmed, 2019; Rifaat & Maini, 2016). Therefore, CPEC dialogues between the federal government and the provinces are positive signs of the government trying to address ethnically motivated grievances (Ahmed, 2019).
Despite the above mentioned positive outcomes of the CPEC project, the project also had the effect of intensifying federal-provincial disputes and ethnonationalistic mistrust in the course of implementation, which resulted in several interprovincial conflicts (Ahmed, 2019). During the execution of the CPEC projects, communication with the local community was not always smooth, with news media reporting grievances from multiple communities (Abubakar, 2019; Guriro, 2016). Nationalist politicians in Pakistan claimed a violation of the government’s agreement in deciding routes for the CPEC (Pervez, 2015). It was also claimed that the federal government had taken a defensive approach in communicating with the provincial governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Baluchistan at the outset (Ahmed, 2019). There was also resistance from Gilgit-Baltistan residents for not addressing this region’s constitutional status in the CPEC projects (Nagri, 2016). Baluchi groups raised concerns about human resource development, CPEC wealth distribution, and enforced displacement of local people (Ahmed, 2019; Ebrahim, 2016; Wolf, 2016). Additionally, CPEC projects in the Thar Desert have brought further grievances from villagers there, including lack of promised job opportunities, underestimation of the value of village relocation, and lack of local livelihood options (Guriro, 2016).
To summarize, despite the positive outcomes of sociocultural exchanges, scholars worldwide still have concerns regarding to the cultural differences between China and recipient countries, and how they might be impacted by absorptive capacity, national culture, human capital, management practices, and language differences (Rechberg & Guo, 2019).
Environmental Debates and Impact of the BRI
Advancing “green” projects has been listed as one of the main aims of the BRI. President Xi Jinping claimed that Belt and Road Cooperation would be “green” and promote sustainable development of BRI participating countries during the Second Belt and Road Forum in 2019 (Xinhua, 2019). At this forum, China also reached a consensus on supporting the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as an integral part of BRI cooperation (Jiang, 2019; Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China [MEE], 2019). As stated by the UN Secretary General António Guterres, the BRI and SDGs have a shared vision and potential symbiosis in global development (Guterres, 2017). The BRI thus has the potential to be made into the world’s first regional attempt to implement SDGs (Shah, 2016). In this regard, the BRI could trigger a sustainable transition within Belt and Road countries, including environmental sustainability, rather than solely focus on economic improvement (Gu et al., 2019; UNDP & CCIEE, 2016).
The Chinese government has announced a series of policies and guidelines, aligning its BRI implementation guidelines to achieving SDGs, such as the Guidance on Promoting a Green Belt and Road (MEP et al., 2017). Additionally, a data service platform was launched in 2019 to provide information related to environmental conditions, and environmental laws and regulations. However, despite high-level green commitments by the BRI leaders, its outcomes remain contentious in terms of environmental sustainability (Brombal, 2018; Tracy et al., 2017). This is due to the vulnerable environmental conditions and weak regulatory framework in the countries hosting BRI projects (Zhang et al., 2018), as well as the large-scale and rapid development of these projects in these regions.
Some BRI projects are situated in environmentally fragile and socially vulnerable areas, which are usually already suffering from environmental resource crises and unsustainable development issues coupled with weak social and environmental rights (Brombal, 2018; P. Li et al., 2015). In these countries, lack of strong regulatory framework may bring greater environmental challenges (Teo et al., 2019). For example, residents in the Thar Desert reported intensified drought and ecosystem degradation due to the various CPEC projects (Guriro, 2016). It is also noteworthy that about two-thirds of China’s completed investment on BRI projects has been spent on energy generation and transportation, accounting for approximately $50 billion and $15 billion, respectively. These are usually considered the projects with the greatest environmental impact (Tonchev, 2020).
Take the Shwe natural gas project in Myanmar as an example. It has had various negative impacts on the environment. First, joint implementation by Chinese companies and Myanmar’s elite makes the Shwe project lack participation from the local community. That has resulted in inequitable and unsustainable resource capture, including the deforestation of tropical rainforests (Kemp & Owen, 2014; Lechner et al., 2019). Second, the project runs through several ecologically sensitive areas in Myanmar, including national marine parks, forests, and wildlife and bird sanctuaries, which are home to various endangered species (BankTrack, 2010). The mud and toxic salted water produced during the exploration of offshore natural gas projects also caused damage to marine life. Third, the discharge of drilling rigs and natural gas torches on land can also destroy local livelihoods. Local fishermen claimed that they were not allowed to enter within a 10-mile radius of the Shwe production platform to fish. Additionally, some villagers further stated that illegal dumping of garbage has had a profound impact on the local fish populations on which residents depend (EJAtlas, 2017).
Furthermore, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) systems in some participating countries may not be robust and comprehensive due to lack of enforcement. For example, EIA requirements were introduced in the Asia-Pacific region in the 1990s (Nadeem & Fischer, 2011). However, these are regarded as more of a “green-washing” tool in some South Asian countries, such as Bangladesh (Khadka & Shrestha, 2011). There are also numerous flaws in the EIA framework in many BRI countries. Some examples are insufficient public consultation and participation in the Malaysian EIA system (Sharom, 2014), and lack of environmental data and monitoring processes in the Lao PDR system (Wayakone & Makoto, 2012). Moreover, most BRI host countries are less developed, with 25 of these described as still suffering from considerable percentage of the population living under the poverty line (Zhang et al., 2018). This may result in these countries lowering their environmental standards in order to attract BRI investment (Balding, 2018; Tracy et al., 2017). For example, heavily polluting Chinese cement plants have been relocated to Tajikistan (Teo et al., 2019).
An additional concern is that China’s BRI is still an abstract idea lacking a comprehensive conceptual framework, which would include international environmental standards (Gu et al., 2019; Tonchev, 2020). For example, despite promoting a “green” BRI at the leadership level, coal power projects have been promoted at the implementation phase. By 2016, China had already supported the construction of 240 coal power projects in 65 BRI countries (Ren et al., 2017), with many proposals for new BRI-sponsored coal power plants under negotiation (Gallagher, 2016). These coal-fired power plants are not only using nonrenewable resources (Ebrahim, 2018); they may also cause air pollution. For instance, the Sahiwal coal-fired power plant constructed by China’s Huaneng Shandong Ruyi Group still emits air and groundwater pollution, though various environmental measures have been adopted by the local government (Abubakar, 2019; Ahmed, 2019; Zia & Waqar, 2018). This divergence between the high-level environmental aims surrounding BRI projects and their actual implementation is an example of the disconnect between ideals and application.
Finally, the BRI’s infrastructure-focused and economic-centric development mode is also an area of environmental concern. As President Xi Jinping himself emphasized, BRI cooperation is based on China’s own development experience (Xi, 2017b). Although the Chinese model has mainly focused on infrastructure and economic development, it is susceptible to problems in other areas (Gu et al., 2019). As early as 2008, the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) pointed out the severe environmental situation facing China in achieving its SDGs (CCICED, 2008). In 2015, a report released by CCICED once again pointed out that the rapid economic growth of China was accompanied by severe environmental pollution, including air pollution, water pollution, and land degradation (Maizland, 2021). For example, the “Develop the West” campaign in 2000 was accompanied by various issues such as forced migration and environmental deterioration (Chan & So, 2016; Ortmann, 2015). Some observers thus argue that the BRI may replicate the shortcomings of the Chinese development model whereby rapid economic growth is achieved at considerable social and environmental costs (Simonov, 2018; Zhang et al., 2018).
Due to such concerns about environmental impacts, the Mongolia Egiin Gol hydropower project and the Myanmar Myitsone hydropower station project have been shelved due to local and national opposition (Simonov, 2018; Tan-Mullins et al., 2017), causing substantial economic losses to Chinese companies. This, in turn, has raised concerns about the huge cost of ignoring possible environmental impacts (Jiang, 2019). Nevertheless, as a result of environmental protection being increasingly valued, China currently leads the world in the innovation and application of low-carbon energy systems, including solar and wind energy (Gu et al., 2019). This increased focus on the environment is further enhanced by the AIIB and its fundamental principles. As an important financial institution of the BRI, it is working closely with other multilateral development banks (MDBs), such as the World Bank and ADB, to promote high-quality development of the BRI and also improve local environmental and social standards (HSBC, 2018). In addition, another significant financial partner of the BRI, the Exim Bank, has also adopted new loan policies for coal, chemical, non-ferrous metals, thermal power, and other industries, which restrict loans to industries with significant environmental and social risk in 2018 (Development Research Center Exim Bank of China, 2019). As such, the BRI could still be seen as an opportunity for China to act as a responsible country actively participating in global environmental governance.
In conclusion, the outcomes of BRI projects impacted recipient countries in a variety of ways, dependent on factors ranging from local capacity, such as regulatory framework, enforcement, and monitoring, to the local geographical context. Most evidence of positive outcomes is concentrated in the economic arena whereas the negatives tend to be the environment and social impacts on the local communities. In addition, the different stakeholders, such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or community leaders, involved in the project have also played a part in promoting positive outcomes and mitigating negative implications from the various projects. However, the progress of BRI projects has encountered a stumbling block due to the pandemic.
COVID-19 Impact on the BRI
The COVID-19 virus was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei, China, in January 2020, and by November 26, 2020, global confirmed cases of COVID-19 had exceeded 60 million, including more than 1.4 million deaths (Johns Hopkins University, 2020). To prevent the spread of COVID-19, governments shut down borders and adopted lockdowns and restricted movement within their countries. This has had a major impact on the global economy, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicting global economic growth in 2020 to be -4.9%, which will cause much uncertainty (International Monetary Fund, 2020). Confronted with this challenge, the progress of BRI projects has been questioned, with Western media, such as the Times, inferring that COVID-19 might be fatal to China’s BRI ambitions (Carroll, 2020; Frankopan, 2020).
The immediate impact of the pandemic on the BRI is in three areas: the energy and health systems of countries along the route; the stagnation of global labor flows due to epidemic prevention; and the subsequent impact on the economies of participating countries. In terms of healthcare systems, most of the Belt and Road countries are still developing countries with healthcare systems ill-equipped to cope with health crises on the scale of COVID-19. For example, in Karachi, Pakistan there are only 600 ICU beds for the entire population of 20 million (Burrows & Engelke, 2020). In Africa and Latin American countries, the need to cope with a shortage of medical resources has been exacerbated by the dense populations in city slums. For example, in Africa, 70% of people live in urban slums of high population density, where social distancing is hard to achieve and even basic hygiene measures, such as regular handwashing with soap and water, are difficult to achieve (Bruton, 2020). It is not only countries’ varying capabilities to respond to health crises that are different; their methods and speed of response also vary. For example, Brazil was late to introduce restrictions, which likely led to a subsequent increase in confirmed cases and ultimately brought greater challenges to the national health system (Rapoza, 2020).
In order to control the spread of the pandemic, different countries around the world have suspended business activity and adopted travel restrictions and border lockdowns, which have had a significant impact on global supply chains, and travel for workers and tourists (Burrows & Engelke, 2020). For the past two decades, global supply chains have relied heavily on Chinese manufactured produce (Baba, 2020). The Chinese supply chain was badly disrupted with the onset of the pandemic, increasing the risk to global supply chains (Baba, 2020). This led to an economic downturn in most BRI participating countries (Moser, 2019). This can be seen in trade statistics between China and Europe and China and Africa, which dropped 10% for the first quarter and 19.3% for the first half year, respectively (Belt and Road Portal, 2020b; Chu, 2020a).
In addition to the economic downturn, another impact of the interruption of supply chains and labor movement restriction is the delays and suspensions of projects. This is also due to many BRI host countries focusing on virus response instead of economic cooperation and infrastructure construction (Ji, 2020). Wang Xiaolong, an official in Chinese Foreign Ministry, has revealed that about 20% of BRI projects have been “seriously affected” and around 40% have been adversely affected, with a further 30%–40% being “somewhat affected” (Nyabiage, 2020). Research by Ni (2020) states that BRI projects have been suspended and slowed in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
In the medium term, the impacts of COVID-19 on BRI projects are more likely to be social and debt related. According to a projection by the World Bank, COVID-19 could push 100 million people into extreme poverty in 2020, resulting in an increase in the global poverty rate from 8.23% to 9.18%, the first increase since 1998 (World Bank, 2020). An example that explains this prediction is that 85% of Africans living on $5.50 or less each day could lose their jobs in the informal sector, increasing the number of Africans living below the poverty line (Bruton, 2020). According to the UN’s latest report, the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating preexisting inequalities and it may end or reverse the results of decades of collective effort, which might lead to more than 47 million women and girls living below the poverty line (UNWomen, 2020). This will exacerbate social injustice and inevitably lead to a negative impact on the progress of BRI projects in these regions.
Due to the outbreak of the pandemic, many countries have had to shift the focus of their public spending to investment in medical infrastructure. Many of these countries were already burdened with high debt rates and have had to turn to multilateral financial institutions for further emergency loans (E.-J. Ni, 2020). As such, some BRI host countries were unable to repay BRI debts, with many canceling BRI contracts (Buckley, 2020). In response to this, China pledged to apply a debt moratorium to the poorest borrowers at the G20 Summit on April 15, 2020. However, this does not apply to hundreds of large “concessional” BRI loans provided through its funding banks (E.-J. Ni, 2020). In addition, it remains unknown if these financial institutions will be able to continue and provide the financial loans. Some researchers argue that Chinese banks funding BRI projects, including the Exim Bank and China Development Bank, are more cautious in providing financial loans (Nyabiage, 2020).
Despite the negative short and mid-term impacts of COVID-19, the pandemic could also bring new opportunities for the Health Silk Road (HSR) and the Digital Silk Road (DSR) in the long run. Confronted with delays to many BRI projects, China has repeatedly emphasized the cooperation between the HSR and the DSR in response to the pandemic to maintain China’s image as a responsible powerful country and ensure the stability of the BRI (Cao, 2020). The HSR and DSR initiatives were not instigated in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, but the spread of coronavirus has brought new BRI opportunities in the area of “soft infrastructure.”
These healthcare, financial, and education systems could also add a new dimension to the BRI in the post-pandemic period. Because many BRI host countries have limited capacity to cope with a health crisis, China’s supply of medical equipment via the HSR may lead to a closer relationship between Belt and Road Countries and China (Buckley, 2020). As of May 24, 2020, China had provided emergency assistance to 150 countries and four international organizations, dispatched 26 medical expert teams to 24 countries with urgent needs, and organized video conferences with 170 countries, sharing mature diagnosis and treatment experience and prevention and control plans (“China’s anti-pandemic cooperation . . .,” 2020). Additionally, by March 23, 2021, more than 80 countries had received COVID vaccine assistance from China (Belt and Road Portal, 2021). The China-Europe Express, connecting more than 60 cities in China with more than 50 cities in 15 European countries, has transported 27,000 tons of anti-pandemic goods, which have played a significant role in a global fight against the COVID-19 (Chu, 2020a). The vaccine diplomacy is also seen as a clear example of promoting soft power of China during this crisis.
China has also utilized a series of digital measures to control the epidemic and aid economic recovery. This also presents an important opportunity for further cooperation via the DSR. Various countries have used various digital solutions devised by China to cope with COVID-19. For example, the color-based health code applications used to record and display personal health status have also been taken up by Colombia, Ghana, Israel, and Singapore, among others, to monitor public health and infection risks (Ji, 2020). Additionally, in the months after the outbreak of COVID-19, consultations on Chinese online health platforms, such as Alibaba Health and Ping An Good Doctor, surged. Taking into account the shortcomings of health departments in many developing BRI countries, similar technologies could also be successfully implemented in other developing countries (Boo & Simpfendorfer, 2020). The digital response to the pandemic has also impacted economic activity through the development of e-commerce. For example, the Rwandan ambassador’s live broadcast on Taobao, a Chinese online shopping platform, generated a year’s sales of locally roasted coffee in just 10 minutes, thus helping the country’s economy recovery (Chu, 2020b). Successful implementation of the BRI opportunities listed above is certain to promote China’s soft power and global influence in the near future and put it on center stage in global relations.
Conclusions and Future Research Directions
The BRI is currently the largest global investment platform and initiative, and is likely to remain such for a considerable time. The number of BRI participant countries is increasing, with 200 cooperation documents signed with 138 countries and 31 international organizations by January 2020 (Belt and Road Portal, 2020a). The outcomes of these BRI projects vary widely due to a variety of factors. Planning and implementing BRI projects in various regions and countries poses tremendous challenges to the investing country, companies and hosting communities. Addressing the impacts associated with the BRI is immensely complex and multifaceted. The debates surrounding the BRI in the economic, political, cultural, and environmental arenas have been highlighted. In the course of doing so, the article highlights the drivers for successful BRI projects. We also discuss China’s provision of energy and infrastructure, financed by Chinese aid and/or loans, can bring better living standards, but has also put China in the spotlight in terms of environmental and social implications.
The capabilities of host countries, in areas of enforcement, monitoring, and mitigation, are key determinants of success or failure in BRI projects. Although China and Chinese companies are bound by the BRI aims of promoting a “green” and sustainable BRI, the success or failure of the project is dependent on the local capacity to negotiate and mitigate the outcomes of the investments. Host countries must exercise their power to select, dictate, and demand policies that are conducive to not only investment, promotion, and trade facilitation but to sustainable development. As many of these projects are transnational and cut across borders and regions, a multiscale approach is required to ensure that BRI projects are assessed at the project implementation stage. For example, in the arena of environment, due diligence could be achieved through an environmental impact assessment at the regional level, the national level, through to the ecoregion scale (e.g., Central Asia, or the South East Asia coral reef triangle), and finally at the global scale.
An increasing number of non-state actors at the local and national levels in the host countries, such as trade unions, civil society organizations, academics, and scientists are voicing their concerns with Chinese companies regarding BRI projects, such as the exploitation of environmental resource. This is strengthening stakeholder engagement, a core pillar of governance, which is pertinent to the success of the BRI. Engaging the local community and social organizations, local governments, and international institutions could initiate dialogue and engagement with Chinese investors. This will enhance information exchange, strengthen mutual trust, and provide assistance to Chinese enterprises in advancing sustainable development efforts through objective and impartial monitoring and evaluation, open and timely sharing of experience, and adequate and practical capacity-building initiatives. Similar to our findings, the International Institute of Environment and Development also found that Chinese operations are strongly shaped by local institutional practices and social norms—the third governance factor—beyond the written laws and policies (Weng & Buckley, 2016).
In terms of future research directions in the economic field, one interesting and important question that scholars should investigate is Chinese willingness to invest in existing conflict zones. Examples of Chinese investment in such conflict zones include the CPEC and the Kyaukpyu–Kunming railway. Avoiding such areas due to conflict might interfere with the intended inclusiveness and connectivity of the BRI and could negatively impact its progress and economic outcomes (Hughes et al., 2020). In addition, the economic and environmental impact of Polar and Arctic Silk Road is also an important focus for future research. It has much potential for surrounding communities given its natural resources and economic benefits, but it is controversial due to the fragile ecological environment. Most research on BRI impact on the environment also tends to be at the micro-level, focusing on the immediate surrounding area of the projects. However, as most infrastructure projects are large scale and cut across borders and regions, the impact of the BRI on natural ecosystems, and bioregions as a whole, needs further investigation. Finally, the BRI is a large-scale project with potential to bring huge benefits to local communities. At the same time, it provides an important platform for China to shape its role in global environmental governance. It is, therefore, important that research assesses how China could shape the future global environment through BRI leadership and how it might challenge current’s global hegemonic structure.
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