China hosted its third Belt and Road Forum from October 17-18, 2023. The event marked the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the signature initiative of Xi Jinping who aspires to recreate the ancient Silk Road and assert Chinese dominance. Beijing claimed that representatives from 130 countries including 20 heads of government participated in the event.
The BRI initiative which started off as an economic project focused on connectivity and financing infrastructure projects has now morphed into an ambitious geopolitical construct to expand China’s influence, increase regional dependency on China and counter the US and Western-led global world order. This grand construct and strategy also includes China’s Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative. The primary audience for this Chinese approach is the Global South, a term for developing countries in general. The U.N. currently lists 181 developing countries and territories.
While BRI is credited with helping lift many people out of poverty, the initiative and China’s approach has drawn increasing criticism and opposition. According to a report from AidData which analyzed 13,427 BRI projects worth $843 billion across 165 countries over an 18-year period “35% of the BRI infrastructure project portfolio has encountered major implementation problems, such as corruption scandals, labor violations, environmental hazards, and public protests”. The other major allegation is that China is engaging in a ‘debt trap’ diplomacy. China is now the world’s biggest international creditor as almost all BRI projects are funded through debt. Full extent of the debt obligation of the BRI recipient countries are unknown as there is little transparency on many of the loans. But well documented cases from Sri Lanka and the Maldives to Laos and Kenya show many countries are struggling with BRI debt.
The U.S. government and its allies are countering China with an alternative to the BRI. The Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative was announced by G7 in 2021. At the G7 summit in 2022, the B3W was rebranded as Partnership for Global Infrastructure. The G-20 Delhi summit in 2023 presented another alternative in the form of the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC) that seeks to link India, West Asia, and Europe through railways and shipping lines. The European Union announced the Global Gateway program, a new infrastructure partnership plan to counter the BRI. The first Global Gateway Forum was held in Brussels on October 25, 2023.