China’s Long Hand: Is the Belt and Road Initiative purely an instrument of Chinese economic policy?

Marcell Lehoczky is a second year History and International Relations student. He is mostly interested in security and international law. Marcell wanted to become Political Theory Officer to help apply International Relations theory to modern day issues.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was introduced in 2013 by Chinese premier Xi Jinping and has become the centrepiece of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy. It has been extended to over 70 countries and marks a significant shift away from China’s old foreign policy “Keeping a Low Profile” (KLP) to a new “Striving for Achievement” (SFA) in which China aims to assume a larger profile in international relations from security issues to development. The BRI has been a cornerstone of this switch as it sees China at the centre of an ambitious economic and developmental plan. The BRI has seen a wide range of criticism, however, it has continued to expand in the nine years since its introduction. One of the most common criticisms aimed at the BRI is that it involves mechanisms of a “debt trap”; that China issues loans that recipient countries are unable to repay and thus this system is used by China for political control and benefit.

Nonetheless, there has been no definitive conclusion on whether the BRI is a form of dept-trap diplomacy. However, the key case of Sri Lanka and an analysis of voting patterns in the UN paint a worrying picture of the BRI as a tool used to gain political gains and to corner some countries where they have little alternative but to cooperate. 

Many have argued that the BRI has led to benefits in multiple nations and, in general, the BRI has not led to debt defaults while the continuation of BRI projects by governments shows the viability and positivity of the BRI. Furthermore, the BRI has had mainly economic goals and motivations, which further aim to show that it is primarily an economic and developmental project, rather than a geopolitical one.

However, while in generic terms the BRI may seem to be purely economic in nature, it has a strong political side that China uses with efficiency. For example, China has been much more lenient regarding debt with African countries than with Asian countries, which raises the question of the importance of geopolitics and China’s aims. With recent security issues in the South China Sea and the proximity of countries such as Sri Lanka and Malaysia to China, as well as a Chinese migrant population in each nation, political goals and aims also influence the BRI. Therefore, while China does not use the BRI as a wholly political tool, since economic considerations are its cornerstone, specific cases, such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives, shine a light on how China does not shy away from using the BRI for political goals and increased influence, especially in strategically important locations.

Furthermore, one of the key indicators to see how China has been able to receive political gain from the BRI is to analyse voting patterns from the UN General Assembly. Nicholas Williams analysed all 30 UNGA sessions since 1991 and used the data to show that the average country that has received BRI funding has moved 1.0 percentage points closer to China when voting on human rights issues while moving 1.3 percentage points away from the average G7 vote. However, the pull towards China is not reflected in general votes, even if there is a small shift away from the G7 votes by countries receiving BRI funding. Furthermore, non-BRI investment does not reflect the same shift in voting patterns, even if in gross amounts countries such as the Australia and Switzerland receive more non-BRI investment, $55 billion and $53 billion respectively between 2003-2020) than the highest BRI recipient, Pakistan with $51 billion. 

This shift in UN voting patterns is a key result of BRI investment, especially since this is most prominent in human rights issues. Since the start of Xi Jinping’s reign, China has shifted to the SFA foreign policy approach and has emphasised its role in human rights discourse. Especially regarding the current Uyghur crisis, China has been a strong supporter of national sovereignty and has aimed to avoid allegations and investigations into the current genocide in Xinjiang. The difference in voting between non-BRI and BRI countries, as well as the shift in the vote by BRI countries since 2013, shows that China is using the BRI effectively to gain increasing political sway in the international system. While this can also be an effect of general international trade or forms of aid, especially in the case of the USA, it does not negate the fact that China is benefiting politically from the BRI, which may put future human rights discourses in jeopardy, while endangering people who are currently facing crises. 

A further example that shows the use of the BRI as a tool for political control and manipulation is the Hambantota Port Project in Sri Lanka. This case has become one of the most well known and symbolises the dangerous effects that BRI debt can have on smaller economies. After being unable to repay its BRI debt, Sri Lanka was forced to lease the Hambantota Port and 15,000 acres of land to China for 99 years. While initial investment by China started before the BRI project began in 2013, many BRI projects, such as the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail, have come under similar criticism as the Hambantota Port. Labelled as a “white elephant”, the port and the nearby airport, both financed with heavy loans from the Chinese Export-Import Bank, have been seen as an example of how China gives excessive credit to countries such as Sri Lanka in return for future political gain. Even after a government change in 2015 and investigations into Chinese credit flowing into former President Rajapaksa’s aids and political campaign, a new government was unable to deal with over $8 billion debt owed to Chinese firms, representing 10% of Sri Lanka’s GDP. This project is exemplary of how Chinese loans, with little restrictions, become overwhelming for receiving countries and lead to compromising political situations where such vast measures, transferring the second largest port and airport of the country, have to be taken. 

Overall, while some reports have shown that many projects of the BRI are not examples of debt-trap diplomacy, the existence of cases such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives shows that China does not shy away from using the BRI, and business, as a front for engaging in risky investments that could yield future political gains, as shown by UN voting patterns.  

The Belt and Road Initiative has attracted many critiques in the West and while many of these remain to be proven, the shift in UN voting patterns and the political capital that China has gained in Sri Lanka should be warning signs. While China will remain ambiguous and promote the BRI as a purely economic project, Sri Lanka shows that China will not shy away from gaining political advantages and involving itself in risky ventures that could result in cases such as the Hambantota Port. Especially looking at the Uyghur crisis, policymakers have to analyse how to combat China’s increasing sway in human rights voting, due in part to the BRI, to protect human rights worldwide.

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