Proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) has been a trending word that frequents news headlines all around the globe, even more so in Bangladesh as it is one of the first South Asian countries to join the initiative. We highly appreciate that Bangladesh along with many other countries have showed great support toward BRI for their good faith in China and the benefits the initiative has already delivered to their people.
However, with it also came up suspicions and speculations over China’s true intention by proposing the biggest public good the world has ever seen so far. And in spite of repeated efforts of China in explaining the nature of the BRI, there is a curious obstinacy from some quarters that rejects the Chinese narrative and insists on making unsubstantiated allegations against the initiative. One of the latest was reportedly made by US Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall G Schriver during his recent visit to Bangladesh, where he claimed that the BRI didn’t support free and open regional development nor ensure the protection of nations’ sovereignty and international law. The claim is rather groundless given where China is standing today in issues concerning global interest and international governance, in stark contrast with how the US has behaved in the past few years. More than anything else, such malicious slander and irresponsible claim are certainly not the least helpful for any kind of peace and development in this region.
Nonetheless, seeing there is still an inadequacy of understanding on what BRI really represents as a whole, especially in certain developed countries who falsely interpret the initiative as a threat to the existing international order, I feel obliged to provide a more comprehensive explanation on what the BRI really is and the true spirit it embodies: openness, inclusiveness and mutual benefits.
What is BRI?
The Belt and Road initiative is proposed for building forms of connectivity among the continents and countries around the globe in order to facilitate closer cooperation in development and beyond. It could find its root long back into history in the ancient Silk Road, a collection of trade routes that spanned across the Eurasian continent about 2000 years ago that enabled the trade of silk, porcelain wares, spices, wines and other commodities among countries along the routes. At that time, China was the starting point in the east for merchants to start their quest. Today, China once again served as the initiator of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, and it is meant for the world to share. The BRI connects different countries and regions, different stages of development, different historical traditions, different cultures and religions, and different customs and lifestyles. It is an initiative for open, inclusive, shared and peaceful development, as well as a way to build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind, which is essentially the Chinese way of saying a better world for each and every one.
Based on the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, the BRI pursues a path for shared development and prosperity through cooperation in five major areas -- policy coordination, connectivity of infrastructure and facilities, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and closer people-to-people ties. Big infrastructure projects and active economic activities focusing on trade and investment are undoubtedly the most tangible part of the BRI, but it has much more to offer in other areas of connectivity such as cultural exchanges, technology transfer and people-to-people contacts. The yearly “Happy Chinese New Year” gala, convened by the Chinese Embassy in Bangladesh in cooperation with local organizations, has become an annual cultural carnival for a wide range of Bangladeshi audiences over the past 6 consecutive years. The number of Bangladeshi people travelling to China for the purposes of tourism, education or training is growing at a stunning rate. Chinese think tanks, scholars and experts are flooding into Bangladesh for experience sharing and academic exchanges. All of these are also a fundamental part of the BRI.
Up to today, more than 150 countries and international organizations have signed BRI cooperation documents with China. From 2013 to 2018, the trade volume between China and other B&R countries surpassed 6 trillion USD, and China's investment in B&R countries exceeds 90 billion USD, with more than 244,000 jobs being created for the locals. The idea of a Community of Shared Future for Mankind has also been written into relevant documents of various international organizations including the UN and the G20. It is increasingly evident that BRI has become an important contributor to global peace and development, and thus it is gaining more and more popularity and recognition around the world. And this is why the BRI is being accepted by more nations and organizations as an important channel to move forward together.
As an early and strategically important partner of the BRI, Bangladesh is well-positioned to reap the benefits. In 2018, the amount of our bilateral trade reached 18.7 billion USD, up by 16.8% over the last year. And the country is well projected to become the 2nd largest trading partner with China in South Asia this year. Bangladesh is now the leading cooperation partner to China in G-to-G projects as well as a major destination of Chinese investment. The construction of the Padma Bridge, the dream bridge of Bangladeshi people, is under full swing by the Chinese contractor China Railway Major Bridge Engineering Group. Various projects funded by Chinese grants, including Bangladesh China Friendship Bridge 1 to Bridge 8, Bangladesh China Friendship Exhibition Centre and Bangladesh (Bangabandhu) International Conference Centre, are sprouting up all over Bangladesh, with more to come in the pipeline. The ever-strong momentum of China-Bangladesh cooperation, especially after the state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the country in 2016, continues to speak of the true strength of BRI cooperation.
Is BRI A Debt Trap?
A commonly seen allegation against the BRI is that it creates heavy debt burdens on some countries as China provides loans beyond their ability to repay in order to gain control of certain key projects, or the so-called “debt trap” as cooked up by certain western media. It has been repeatedly debunked by China as well as officials from the relevant recipient countries.
A typical example would be Sri Lanka. According to a report published by the central bank of Sri Lanka, its China-related debt accounts for merely 10.6% of the total, 61% of which is at an interest rate far below that of the international market. Sri Lankan President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Parliament and Head of the opposition party all have mentioned that the bigger part of Sri Lanka’s current debt burden comes from multilateral lending institutions, not China. Rather, to cooperate with China will help them walk out of the debt crisis. Similar case is found in Pakistan where the Chinese loans make up only 10% or so of the total.
Bangladesh already has strong institutional arrangements in place with a healthy debt to GDP ratio well below 30%, as the Governor of Bangladesh Bank once pointed out, so there’s even less ground to be concerned about the make-believe “debt trap”. In addition, in order to increase financial security for BRI projects, China and its partners have formulated the Guiding Principles on Financing the Development of the Belt and Road and published the Debt Sustainability Framework for Participating Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative to provide guidance for BRI financing cooperation.
As a matter of fact, the BRI wouldn’t pose any form of risk to its partners, which has been well proved in the practice and implementation of the BRI in the past 6 years. BRI is open, Inclusive and beneficial for all. Moving into the future, China will seek to build a more dynamic and inclusive BRI by engaging in bilateral, trilateral and multilateral cooperation with all participants, an open, green and clean BRI that is transparent and free of corruption, and a higher standard BRI that aims to improve people’s lives in line with the Sustainable Development Goals of UN 2030 Agenda, as stated by President Xi Jinping of China at the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2019. China always stands by its words to welcome all countries to join the BRI in a common effort to make our world a better place.
Li Jiming is Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh