10th Anniversary of Belt and Road Initiative: Can China Change Course on its Massive Economic Zone Program?

Even though China has made certain achievements in infrastructure development in developing countries, the view that Beijing is using the Belt and Road Initiative to expand its influence is growing stronger in the international community. Can China change course?

This month marks 10 years since Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the massive economic zone program. The number of countries participating in the initiative has grown to more than 150, and trade between China and the countries along the Belt and Road has doubled to about $2 trillion (about ¥290 trillion) in the past 10 years.

However, it has clearly become difficult for China to proceed with the initiative, as a result of the slowdown in the nation’s economy due to such factors as the sluggish real estate market, as well as Beijing’s intensifying confrontation with the West.

Italy is the only country from the Group of Seven industrialized nations to participate in the initiative, but it is considering withdrawing, partly due to a domestic power shift. China has not made investments it promised to, and Italy has not received the economic benefits it had hoped for from the initiative.

If Italy were to withdraw from the enterprise in this milestone year, it would inevitably deal a blow to the Xi administration. Other participating countries would likely consider exiting the initiative, too.

Already, the three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have withdrawn from a framework for economic cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe in response to China’s support for Russia, which invaded Ukraine, among other factors.

China should treat these headwinds as an opportunity to rethink its approach to the initiative.

China’s support was welcomed by the recipient countries largely because Beijing did not impose political conditions on the loans, such as improving human rights conditions, as demanded by the West or international organizations. However, this has also thwarted the recipient nations’ development of self-reliance and human resources.

It is also a well-known fact that China’s loans have given priority to ports and other areas of interest to Beijing, disregarding the civilian needs of the recipient countries and their ability to repay the loans.

Sri Lanka is a typical example, having fallen into a debt trap in which it became unable to make repayments to China and had to effectively transfer to China its rights to a port.

China maintains that the Belt and Road Initiative is a mutually beneficial concept. If so, Beijing should make agreements and memorandums of understanding with partner countries easily available to the public and reveal the terms of loans. China has been criticized for the existence of nondisclosure clauses in agreements and memorandums.

The Xi administration plans to host an international conference related to the initiative in Beijing in October, and has reportedly invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend. The Russian side has said that Putin plans to visit China.

If the conference is used to show off China and Russia’s unity against the West and Japan, it will only further discredit the international credibility of the initiative.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 10, 2023)