For all its flaws, China’s belt and road has lifted the Global South
- China saw that infrastructure investment paves the way for development, though it perhaps underestimated the challenges of putting together long-gestation infrastructure projects
- Whatever the criticism and the numerous projects that have fallen short of expectations, there is infrastructure being built that would never otherwise have been built
Take Christina Lu in Foreign Policy magazine in February. The headline reads: “China’s Belt and Road to Nowhere”. The initiative is “a shadow of its former self”, she says. The “floundering initiative” has seen its lending slump and projects stall.
In reality, the initiative seems to have become part of a reshaping of relations between the traditionally rich and the traditionally poor, with the developing world’s share of global GDP rising in the process. After a decade of more than 3,100 projects across almost 150 countries amounting to more than US$1 trillion, the steadily rising importance of the Global South is becoming clear, as is China’s role in shaping it.
Few at the time appreciated how radical a thought this was in condemning the aid-based poverty alleviation strategies that evolved after World War II. China’s state-level view was that it was not adequate to provide the world’s poor with fish but instead to provide fishing nets and let the world’s poor fish for themselves.
The risks are also infamously political, leaving projects unusually vulnerable to the cantankerousness of politicians contesting for power.
This unique set of challenges, aggravated in impoverished and unstable developing economies, has made it painfully difficult to build necessary infrastructure in recent decades. The Asian Development Bank estimates that in Asia alone, the shortfall in investment – ranging from roads, railways and ports to power plants and social infrastructure – amounts to more than US$900 billion a year.
It was also concerned about maritime vulnerability, with the Malacca Strait bottleneck separating China from its main trading partners, particularly oil and gas suppliers in the Middle East.
Xinjiang needed markets to trade with, and these sat westward across Central Asia – from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, down into Pakistan and Afghanistan and westward through Iraq and Iraq to the Persian Gulf and Europe. Reviving these once-vibrant ancient trade routes would not only lift the fortunes of many people but also improve China’s land-based economic linkages to the Indian Ocean – via Pakistan to its Gwadar Port – and across to Europe and ultimately to Africa. China’s economic and strategic imperatives aligned perfectly.
The infrastructure that has been built so far might not have fully addressed China’s deep-seated strategic anxieties, but it has boosted its ability to build stronger trading links across Asia and Africa. This has altered the balance of global economic power and transformed the prospects for many developing countries worldwide. According to a new report by the China International Capital Corporation, China is the top trading partner of 35 countries which are part of the initiative.
The reality is that building infrastructure is always going to be politically fraught and will often end in debt and grief. But history is likely to see China’s belt and road strategy as one of the boldest global economic projects ever conceived. One can only wish that other countries would follow.
David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades