2 May 2019
SDG Knowledge Weekly: Update and Perspectives on Belt and Road Initiative
Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash
story highlights

A variety of news and blogs were published around the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.

The Brookings Institution and experts from academia assess the strategic implications of the Belt and Road Initiative, potential responses from 'the West' and the Initiative's impacts on sustainable development in other regions.

Media releases and op-eds highlight issues of transparency, governance and environmental degradation, pointing to investments in fossil fuel infrastructure as well as the launch of international coalitions relating to renewable energy, lighting, cooling and sustainable development.

Continuing on the infrastructure and investment themes from recent weeks’ briefs, this SDG Knowledge Weekly brief focuses on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the country’s infrastructure investments and their regional impacts. Featuring official statements, academic/expert opinions and other studies, this brief complements an SDG Knowledge Hub write-up of the BRI Forum, the resulting communiqué and other outcomes.

The second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation took place from 25-27 April 2019, in Beijing, China. The Forum’s official website features headline news and photos, while an independent Belt and Road Initiative website compiles recent news relating to the Forum. The official BRI portal is available here. For those seeking a refresher on the BRI, please see the last SDG Knowledge Weekly brief on the subject or a pre-read from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), released prior to the Forum. For BRI Forum takeaways, a Bloomberg summary is here.

An IBON International policy brief also gives an overview on the basics of the BRI. It provides an unofficial list of countries involved, outlines five BRI priorities and six economic corridors, and provides context to place the Initiative in the broader global context vis-à-vis development agendas such as the SDGs and South-South Cooperation Conference (BAPA+40). The brief also provides tables of the largest contracts awarded to Chinese companies from 2013-2018 and a list of private corporations’ involvement. The brief calls for infrastructure development to be “genuinely demand-driven” and with peoples’ rights placed first and foremost, among other key messages.

A summary of China President Xi Jinping’s speech at the Forum in the South China Morning Post indicated that the country will not devalue the currency and that the BRI is not “an exclusive club” meant only for China. Xi said China will strengthen enforcement of intellectual property (IP) protection and signaled a commitment to an open economy, though the summary notes that a trade war “was still reflected in Xi’s speech.” In his remarks, UN Secretary-General António Guterres outlined the importance of “inclusive sustainable and durable” development, pledging the support of UN country teams and highlighting the urgency of “green development” in the context of imminent climate impacts.

An interview on The Brookings Institution’s website unpacks the broader politics of global infrastructure development vis-à-vis the BRI, with nine experts discussing strategic implications of the initiative and assessing China’s motivations for undertaking it. Highlights include the finding that the BRI “is meeting a need and filling a void left by international financial institutions (IFIs)” that have shifted away from “hard infrastructure development,” as well as the importance of a US strategy that responds to the BRI. The interviewees note that the BRI “is a money-making investment” featuring “a blend of economic, political and strategic agendas that play out differently in different countries.” They further note the importance of an independent media in recipient countries, to ensure BRI projects can be scrutinized.

Deborah Brautigam, Johns Hopkins University, argues that the BRI is not a military or strategic threat to the West, but is indeed an economic one, in an analytic op-ed on The American Interest. She compares the various arguments for and against the Initiative (many of which are noted above and below), notes China’s interest in ports, highlighting the links between port projects and economic growth, and explores the topic of “debt trap diplomacy.” Among other conclusions, she finds that 1) the challenge of China’s infrastructure investment push abroad to the US and the West is that it is “quite attractive to many low-income countries and we [the West] do not have the tools to offer something better,” and 2) when it comes to issues such as anti-corruption legislation, very few OECD countries actively enforce existing laws, so “it seems the Chinese may not be so different from ‘the West’ after all.”

An article on Foreign Policy emphasizes the strategic importance of the recently established US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC), scheduled to begin operating at the end of 2019. However, the authors, from Princeton University, underscore the IDFC’s “relative poverty” compared to the BRI: USD 60 billion compared to nearly USD 1 trillion. The authors outline a three-part strategy: 1) leverage China’s bucking of international norms around lending; 2) highlight corrupt BRI payments; and 3) use IDFC funds to “liberate countries that find themselves in Beijing’s financial clutches.”

A Chatham House commentary calls for increases in transparency and predictability when it comes to BRI projects. Author James Crabtree calls on China to “move beyond… opaque, bilateral deals” and address three intertwined issues: 1) debt traps; 2) transparency; and 3) the “muddled organization” that accompanies many infrastructure deals.

A separate article on the South China Morning Post describes how China sought to address criticisms relating to debt traps and environmental sustainability during the BRI Forum, noting that “Chinese officials have been scrambling to clear controversies that the initiative is a scheme to entrap nations into debt.” Similarly, a New York Times op-ed, also by Deborah Brautigam whose analysis is above, asks, “is China the world’s loan shark?” Relatedly, Bloomberg News published an article aimed at potential recipients or beneficiaries of BRI projects that articulates “seven risks to check” before accepting funds.

A second article on Bloomberg also highlights officials’ attempts to bolster the BRI’s image after criticism, particularly with regard to what the BRI actually is (or is not). The aim, it notes, is to stop companies from appropriating or misusing the BRI label, given that “unchecked use of the name on projects has created confusion about the initiative’s scope and damaged its reputation abroad.” The ODI blog mentioned above also links to several databases and resources on BRI projects.

Looking at the BRI’s impacts in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region, researchers from Tsinghua University published an article in Sustainability that links the BRI, China-LAC relations and broader 2030 Agenda. Titled, ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Latin America and the Caribbean,’ the study finds that despite strong political, economic and trade relationships, there must be deeper dialogues and cooperation on sustainable development. The authors note concerns “with regard to environmental and social impacts as Chinese investments, infrastructure projects, trade balance and market opportunities enter [the LAC] region.” The study also maps the content of China’s policies towards the LAC region—as well as official documents relating to the BRI—to the 2030 Agenda, noting that the Joint Action Plan of China-LAC Cooperation for 2019-2021 aligns with 13 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

While human development need not come at the cost of environmental degradation, several authors have pointed out a link between the BRI and funding for fossil fuel infrastructure development. An article in The Guardian highlights that, despite cutting its own dependence on coal, the country “has committed more than USD 20 billion in funding for coal plants around the world.” On the other hand, China has also played a role in the launch of an official BRI International Green Development Coalition, together with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), China’s top environmental watchdog organization and over 120 institutions from 25+ countries. An article on Climate Change News summarizes how China is both promoting green projects and facing pressure over its coal investments.

Also looking at the environmental dimension, IDDRI outlines criticisms of the BRI on the environmental impacts of its early accomplishments, and on uncertainties over China’s willingness to strengthen existing institutions (rather than replacing them with new ones through which the country could exert more control). Asking whether the BRI can “reinforce the multilateral agenda for sustainable development,” the blog highlights several launches in addition to the Green Development Coalition:

  • Three “operational” initiatives: the BRI Green Cooling Initiative (on the environmental performance of air conditioners); the BRI Green Lighting Initiative; and the BRI Green Going-Out Initiative on investments by Chinese companies abroad;
  • The BRI Green Investment Principles, announced at the end of 2018 by the City of London Corporation’s Green Finance Initiative (GFI), in partnership with the Chinese Green Finance Committee (GFC); and
  • The BRI Environmental Big Data Platform, which aims to centralize and share data on the environmental performance of BRI projects, as well as promote the sharing of good practices.

Of chief importance to global society regardless of geopolitical strategy, the IDDRI brief concludes that “China’s current international positioning as a champion of environmental multilateralism, in contrast to the renunciation of the US, must be used strategically to encourage” organizations to strengthen, not supplant, multilateral institutions and the priorities of the SDGs.

Additional issues of the SDG Knowledge Weekly can be found here.

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