The state of the Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic
Pakistan’s prestigious daily The Dawn has recently published an opinion piece about the much-publicized China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The opening sentence of this piece correctly states how it has been “peddled to the people as a game-changer.” However, it quickly switches to a grimmer picture, saying: “the projects in its first phase have failed to usher in the level of prosperity that was promised to the people.”
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is ailing, and Islamabad is genuinely alarmed. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in April 2020 identifies three main areas of concern, namely: 1) there is a large gap between planned projects and progress (scaled back by 75%), 2) the energy projects are posing a severe risk to public health due to pollution, and 3) despite a promise to turn Pakistan into a high-value manufacturing hub, there is no tangible development.
Pakistan currently faces an energy deficit of 3,000 MW during peak demand, and solving this issue was a priority for the CPEC since 2013. Energy projects, including power plants, pipelines, and transmission projects, account for nearly two-thirds of announced funding. But several large such projects have since been delayed or shelved. BRI has indeed become a Chinese version of “debt-trap diplomacy” to many recipient countries.
China unveiled its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. Many developing countries in Asia and Africa welcomed it as they saw it as an alternative to the World Bank-led funding source for infrastructure development. According to the BRI official website, it is a transcontinental long-term policy and investment program that aims to develop and accelerate economic integration along the historic Silk Road route. Several regional initiatives are underpinning the umbrella BRI. I will briefly discuss the status of two of them, one in Myanmar and another in Pakistan.
Whatever the stated goal, BRI has triggered discontent among the host countries, and the progress is far behind the plan. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) suffered a severe setback when the host government stalled the Myitsone Dam project in 2011 in the face of public protest. Beijing has already spent USD 3.6b on it but failed to convince the generals in Naypyidaw to re-commence it. The recent Chinese-backed military takeover in Myanmar ousting the Suu Kyi government has increased the public mistrust towards Beijing. In 2018, Myanmar re-negotiated a Chinese-led port project in the western state of Rakhine, slashing the price tag to $1.3 billion from an initial $7.2 billion over excessive debt concerns. No doubt Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port saga was in everyone’s mind. In 2017, Sri Lanka had to handover this Chinese-built port to a state-owned company for 99 years as it could not pay the debt. A recent report says that the deal allows this company to control the port for another 99 years, making it a total of 198 years, raising eyebrows in Colombo.
In a recent paper titled “China’s Grand Strategy under Xi Jinping — Reassurance, Reform, and Resistance,” Professor Avery Goldstein of the University of Pennsylvania discussed the Chinese grand plan. According to him, Beijing aims at shaping the world for its rise by 1) reassuring other states about the benign intentions of a rising China, 2) promoting reform of the international order to facilitate its rise, and 3) resisting challenges to the country’s core interests.
The nature of Beijing’s participation in the global efforts to handle the COVID-19 pandemic also poses similar questions, can President Xi steer China to materialize its grand strategy?
The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge for China, as it was for the whole world. Beijing’s successful handling of the Wuhan crisis was praiseworthy, and the world watched in awe when Chinese engineers built a full-fledged hospital in just six days with breathtaking speed. However, that admiration quickly waned when Beijing dragged its feet about the WHO team’s visit to Wuhan. Instead of addressing the matter, it decided to penalize Australia by imposing an additional duty on its exports to China. Why? Because Canberra criticized Beijing for its mishandling of the WHO visit. Beijing has also lost the battle for the coronavirus vaccine, as the American and European research organizations have started large-scale production and dissemination of their products.
What went wrong in Beijing? The vacuum created by President Donald Trump offered an excellent opportunity for President Xi to step in and show the world that Beijing is also capable of acting as a responsible global leader. But we didn’t notice any such message from Beijing. Instead, it went heavy-handed with India (multiple border clashes), continued large-scale human rights violations on the Uighurs, used a disproportionate amount of force in Hong Kong, and turned a blind eye to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. China also focused on using its coronavirus vaccines to project its influence, while it has a history of vaccine scandals. Chinese researchers have not adequately shared data on their human trials and the more than 1 million emergency-use inoculations. Even among the Chinese nationals, there is a lack of trust and public concerns about their vaccine quality.
Many centuries ago, the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu (d.497 BC) said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” The developing countries were looking to build their infrastructures for the last few decades. President Trump left most of America’s global leadership roles for others to pick up. And most recently, the world was looking for a way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. All these had been opportunities for Beijing to step up as a global leader. What would Sun Tzu have done if he were around today?
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