Oxford Debate: 'With the Belt and Road Initiative, China Pays for Worsening Its Own Image'
Motion: China's Belt and Road Initiative Is Failing
In this Oxford Debate we are debating whether China's Belt and Road Initiative – faced with a global pandemic, a more hostile stance towards China in many countries and the slowing of the economy on top of that – is failing or rather very much alive and thriving? With Andreea Brînză, Francesca Ghiretti, Mary Kay Magistad and Raffaello Pantucci.
Our key takeaways:
Mary Kay Magistad: Contrary to the pitch in 2013 the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not a multinodal network with everyone connecting with everyone. And China has not created a "community of common destiny". Much more, the BRI was and is a hub and spokes initiative with China at its center, with Chinese financing, with Chinese state-owned companies getting most of the work, and often Chinese companies managing ports and other projects after the work is done.
But the power imbalance has been recognized by partner countries, which lead to many projects being pulled back or scaled down. Public discontent about environmental cost, high debt-load has contributed to this, including the digital silk road where many countries are reconsidering having 5G infrastructure from Huawei. Covid has added to that and the Chinese government has admitted that during the pandemic, up to 40% of BRI projects have felt impact, and 20% even severe impact.
In short, this is all not going the way China wants or has envisioned it.
Francesca Ghiretti counters: The BRI is not just about infrastructure but about China’s foreign policy that has many shapes and which makes it hard to say what is failing where. Also, the BRI is strictly linked Xi Jingping. It is his project, written even into the constitution. And, something that is written into the constitution can’t really fail – not at least without hindering the figure of Xi Jingping. And that means: It is not allowed to fail.
If BRI is supposed to be a way to restore China to its rightful position or improve its image as a benevolent international power, says Andreea Brînză, BRI has failed China. Often coined as a ‘debt-trap’ or a new form of imperialism it has mostly generated mistrust. And while it is continuing, all the failed projects have left a mark on the BRI and with it, China basically pays for worsening its own image: If that is not a sign for failure, what is?
But also looking at the projects, eight years after its announcement, no infrastructure is project finished yet. Some projects may be completed, but these projects are haunted by questions of feasibility, profitability, environmental footprint and so on.
And Raffaello Pantucci argues: If we are arguing that China is being an increasingly aggressive actor on the world stage and that many countries in the West in particular find Chinese foreign policy quite difficult to be confronted with, maybe the opposing team would have a point. But: we are arguing that Chinese foreign policy as articulated in the BRI is failing. And that is very different question.
The BRI is continuing and still considered a success. Of course, there have been setbacks, but the Hambantota case is most often the only example of a failure. When looking at it closely though, it was the country of Sri Lanka that made a bad decision, and not China forcing it to take on such a big loan. Often problems with the BRI arise around election times, as in Pakistan with the CPEC corridor. But after Imran Khan was elected, the whole project continued smoothly with only some adjustments. Or take Malaysia: As announced, halting the project after taking office, Mahatir Mohamad let most of its project proceed after some renegotiating.
For the BRI to be failing we would need to see China stopping to engage abroad. But this is not happening. Even during Covid, we see governments push for engagement with China like in Kirgistan or Indonesia. And that doesn’t spell failure.
Watch the whole conversation above.
China's Belt and Road Initiative is failing.
Arguing in favor of the motion
Mary Kay Magistad is the Associate Director at the Center on US-China Relations. Before joining the Asia Society in July 2021, she created and hosted the award-winning podcasts On China’s New Silk Road and Whose Century Is It. Mary Kay has long experience reporting throughout Asia and about China’s impact around the world. She opened NPR's first Beijing bureau in the mid '90s, and returned for the BBC/PRX program The World (2003-13). Earlier, she was NPR’s Southeast Asia correspondent. She has reported in every province in China, most countries in Asia, and several in Africa, on how China's fast economic growth and rise as a global power were affecting individual lives, and reshaping the global economy, environment and political equations. Mary Kay has taught international reporting, and headed the audio journalism program, at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She’s been a Nieman Fellow and Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University. Her work has received awards from the Overseas Press Club, dupont-Columbia, and the Society of Professional Journalists/Sigma Delta Chi, among others.
Andreea Brînză is a researcher specialized on China's foreign policy, with a focus on the Belt and Road Initiative. She is Vice President of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP) and she is completing a PhD on the Belt and Road Initiative. Her work was featured in Foreign Policy, SCMP, The Diplomat and Nikkei Asia, among others.
Arguing against the motion
Raffaello Pantucci is a think tank researcher with a focus on China's relations with its Western neighbours as well as terrorism and counter-terrorism. He is a Senior Fellow in the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in London. In addition, he serves on several editorial and advisory boards of academic journals and initiatives. He is a founder of Young China Watchers (YCW). Previously, he has worked among others at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) in Shanghai, and the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He is the author of a forthcoming book on China's relations with Central Asia which draws on over a decade's travel and research around the region.
Francesca Ghiretti is an analyst at Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) and covers EU-China relations with a focus on economic security, China's global investments, China's footprint in Southern Europe and UK-China relations. Ghiretti is finishing a PhD from King’s College London, where she is a Leverhulme fellow at the Centre for Grand Strategy. Before joining MERICS, she worked as a Research Fellow Asia at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome leading a project on the Belt and Road Initiative in Italy; as a geopolitical analyst for CQS, a London-based hedge fund, and as assistant to Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former Secretary General of NATO.
About Oxford Debates
The Oxford Debates at Asia Society Switzerland are a format to address ‘big’ questions that have no one answer or solution but are inviting many conflicting views. Four renowned experts in the field form teams of two, one team arguing for the motion, the other against it.
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