30 May 2019

What on earth is China's Belt and Road?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 30 May 2019
Papua New Guinea's prime minister Peter O'Neill arrives in Beijing for a 'Belt and Road' summit, 25 April 2019.

Papua New Guinea's prime minister Peter O'Neill arrives in Beijing for a 'Belt and Road' summit, 25 April 2019. Photo: PNG PM Office

The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s trade policy enigma. Its intention is to promote infrastructure growth in developing countries to aid international trade with China.

The superpower is investing trillions of dollars to widen and bolster its military and geopolitical strategy.

The policy was introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013 and embedded in the constitution four years later. Since then, over 150 countries have expressed their interest in the BRI.

Journalist Jeremy Rees has been told by a Chinese economist to “think of it as a philosophy rather than a policy”.

The lack of a concrete and transparent policy has created an air of ambiguity.

“Anything that can increase the infrastructure of countries and link them to China, is the policy, but having said that - everything seems to come under belt and road,” says Rees.

In Fiji, plans for a luxury resort have been pulled after the developer, Freesoul, was accused of environmental destruction and failing to gain the correct permits.

Similar accusations have been made by environmentalists of projects in parts of Pakistan, Africa and Thailand.

But it can be difficult to point the finger at the Chinese government. 

Dr Jason Young, a political scientist from Victoria University of Wellington says not all projects are publicly tied to BRI.

“There could be questions of commercial sensitivities of some of the companies involved,” says Young.

But Young agrees transparency is vital; to be environmentally liable, to prove economic ties, is in China’s best interest.

New Zealand has signed a non-binding memorandum of agreement to explore infrastructure projects that would strengthen ties with the Peoples’ Republic.

Dr Young says there has been some hesitation to jump onboard.

With mounting criticism of the policy: as a debt-trap for developing nations and as environmentally irresponsible, BRI is starting to lose favour.

President Xi Jinping took to the podium at the recent BRI forum and assured world leaders projects would be clean, green and sustainable.

That assurance appears to have worked, with Trade Minister David Parker, on returning from the forum, saying he was in favour of starting projects.

There are no BRI projects in New Zealand as yet, but perhaps not for long – with the Chinese looking at rail investment in particular.

Photo: RNZ