Published: 00:42, May 23, 2023 | Updated: 10:39, May 23, 2023
Belt and Road Initiative an unprecedented global public good
By Ho Lok-sang

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was proposed 10 years ago by President Xi Jinping. It can be described figuratively as “bridge building”: connecting people formerly without access to markets to markets, connecting people who had been denied a future to a future, and connecting different peoples. The BRI’s success is mind-blowing. 

Back in September 2013, the BRI was initially conceived as a collaborative venture between China and Central Asia to build a Silk Road Economic Belt. The concept was then extended in the following month when President Xi proposed the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road to promote maritime cooperation and strengthen ASEAN-China ties. In a speech in Indonesia, Xi also proposed establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to finance infrastructure development. Today the BRI has covered Africa and reached South America. The BRI is ostensibly a global project following the ideal of “community of shared future for mankind” and peaceful development. Although the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations were proposed in 2015, President Xi had these development goals in mind when he proposed the BRI back in 2013. 

Superficially, the BRI is China’s response to the Asian Development Bank’s message published in a 2009 report that estimated emerging Asia was short by $8.5 trillion in funding its infrastructure needs over the decade from 2010. Infrastructure development is indeed central to the BRI, but the BRI really has holistic development in mind. According to one source, in Africa alone, China has constructed more than 6,000 kilometers of railway, 6,000 km of highways or roads, nearly 20 ports, more than 80 big electricity facilities, more than 130 medical facilities, 45 stadiums, and more than 170 schools. China had sent 21,000 medical support workers to more than 48 African nations, who have treated African patients over 220 million times. Africa happens to be the continent where a majority of its population holds a positive view of China. 

China has successfully eliminated extreme poverty within the country. By building the various “bridges” (railway links, ports, power plants, industrial zones, schools, etc) that vastly improved the capability of many developing countries to realize their potential, China is also helping them to eradicate extreme poverty. Although richly endowed with resources, Africa was considered the world’s poorest inhabited continent in 2013. However, since then, it has been growing rapidly and the World Bank expects that most African countries will reach “middle income” status (defined as at least $1,025 per person a year) by 2025. The IMF estimates that sub-Saharan Africa will grow at 3.6 percent this year and at 4.2 percent next year. These are above-world average growth rates. China is helping Africans to enjoy a longer life expectancy. 

The Export-Import Bank of China has provided significant trade financing to boost trade with BRI countries. As early as 2019, the EXIM Bank’s BRI loans surpassed 1 trillion yuan ($142 billion). It must be pointed out that during the COVID-19 pandemic, while global trade was plummeting, China’s trade with BRI countries showed great resilience. Today, China is the top trading partner to more than 120 countries. This resilience is helped as much by trade financing and other policy arrangements as it is helped by hard infrastructure. For example, the China-Europe freight trains provided “a passage of life” when sea and air transportation was crippled by the pandemic. According to Liang Haiming, dean of the Belt and Road Research Institute at Hainan University, “The train has created a new passage between China, Central Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the European continent. It is also building a new landscape in global trade that will lead to win-win cooperation with countries and regions along the BRI.” 

The world is now facing serious challenges because we cannot wait to fight climate change. China had faced some criticisms about its role in building coal-fired power plants. While coal-fired power plants can be designed to be efficient in minimizing CO2 emissions, China made a policy statement in March 2022 declaring that no new coal power plants will be built in the BRI. That policy statement was called “Opinions on the Joint Implementation of Green Development in the Belt and Road Initiative”. Being issued by the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment and the Ministry of Commerce, the document can be seen as an authoritative policy position of the government. 

The BRI is a global public good in that it promotes peace, cooperation, respect, poverty alleviation and green development. Although the challenges are great, and risks are always lurking, the world can see that China’s engagement with other countries is always with respect and never as a dominating power that bullies weaker counterparties. To its credit, a Voice of America report about a survey by Britain-based YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project on African’s views about China and America reads: “Asked which country had engaged in ‘bullying’ behavior globally, Washington trumped Beijing in all three African nations. Likewise on the question of which country has ‘given military support to one side or another in a foreign civil war, in ways that do more harm than good to the people of that country.’ Africans blamed the U.S. for this more than China. And in terms of being suspected of interference in other countries’ national elections, the U.S. again fared worse than China.” (Oct 31, 2022)

The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.