PRC analysts debate responses to rising external criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Despite warm responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across the world reported in China’s media, political shifts in many regions have placed a spotlight on the initiative. As some flagship projects hit bumps, accusations of BRI ‘debt traps’ have multiplied.

The ‘debt trap’ charge has become a contested issue, particularly given the initiative’s close association with Xi Jinping, and its elevation by him to the Party Constitution in October 2017. Misgivings in the international community were comparatively mild until 16 November 2018, when US Vice President Mike Pence told the APEC summit ‘the terms…are opaque at best, and the benefits invariably flow overwhelmingly to Beijing’. He followed this with explicit proposals to contain and counteract BRI’s impact.

Responses from Beijing range from hostile rejection of the Pence charges, through defence of BRI’s good intentions, to technical explanations of its methods and instruments, not least loans. The idea that Western resentment of rising China creates an agenda, hidden or not, to contain BRI is widely canvassed. Debate over how to proceed has become increasingly visible as external criticism grew over the last few months.

foreign election rhetoric, BRI turmoil

Views may shift in partner nations, but most Chinese analysts remain sanguine about BRIs motivations and basic structure, choosing instead to blame international observers for the change in public opinion. Western nations, not partner countries, sour perceptions of BRI, writes Chen Qinghong 陈庆鸿 China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. Despite interference from western countries, he contends, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir has contributed to improvement in China–Malaysia relations.

Western nations fail to understand how China balances private and public interests, argues Zhang Zhong 张中 China University of Politics and Law assistant professor, assuming that China is working for its own domestic interest. Western nations criticise Chinese investment abroad out of a fear of growing Chinese influence, writes Peng Nian 彭念 National Institute for South China Sea Studies, aiming to limit BRI’s efficacy by eroding trust in Chinese firms and infrastructure deals.

support with BRI institutions?

Some PRC commentators have become sensitive to external criticism of BRI, now made personal by Pence, and support new institutional structures and adjustments to project scope to limit pushback. Observers fall generally into two camps: the first supports institutional upgrading to realise BRI in its current state; the second suggests that the mission itself must be adjusted to make it a sustainable effort. This discussion among researchers, scholars and in the media likely reflects different views among Chinese policymakers.

The institutional upgrading camp supports structures that formalise and internationalise BRI, making it less vulnerable to disruption at a single point of failure. Institutional upgrades craft BRI as an international strategy, an approach that Xue Li 薛力 CASS Institute of World Economics and Politics believes would strengthen its sustainability. As a global platform, the Belt and Road Initiative is less likely to be undermined by a single oppositional actor, particularly the US. The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) trialed international Belt and Road courts to provide fair, effective and convenient legal services to participating parties, says Liu Guixiang 刘贵祥 Supreme People’s Court Judicial Committee. The SPC has also drafted regulations on understanding and implementing civil and commercial judgements from foreign courts, which Liu says will make BRI sustainable and actionable for other nations, regardless of their internal judicial system. Following Liu’s commentary, BRI courts were formally announced in January 2018 and launched 1 July 2018.

adjust BRI scope?

Acknowledging geopolitical challenges, the other camp sees a need to adjust the initiative’s aim and scope, making it more modest and actionable through strategic planning in alignment with partner nations’ local conditions. Absent more modest and realistic claims, warns Zheng Yongnian 郑永年 South China University of Technology Institute of Public Policy, BRI may face outright opposition from an already distrustful international community. Given these ‘BRI bashing’ tendencies, over-promising BRI deliverables could be a ‘fatal error’. To avoid such errors, argue Cheng Chengping 程承坪 and Wu Fang 吴方 Wuhan University Economics and Management School, BRI must align more closely to the specific needs of partner nations. Such an effort would include creating local coordination mechanisms and supporting cooperation in industry and finance.

expect slowdown

Thus far, neither camp dominates discussion. There is ample reason to believe both sets of opinions will shape the Belt and Road Initiative into a project both more modest in its promises and robust in its support structures. However, much will depend on the continued response of those countries who consider BRI an opportunity, versus those who wonder if it represents a threat. Beijing may well be forced to do more fence-mending than road building in coming months.


Peng Nian 彭念 | National Institute for South China Sea Studies researcher

Versed in major power relations, Peng argues that in order to combat fallacies surrounding the Belt and Road Initiative, China must make investments more transparently, evaluate partner country readiness, and refute Western assumptions. China must follow its own way in policy promotion, he asserts, and can reduce the burden on partner nations by deferring repayment until projects are operational. When discussing China–US relations, Peng urges paying closer attention to details of the Indo–Pacific Strategy, as Trump is bent on making the policy successful. In contrast to other executive branch initiatives, this policy is primarily supported by the Pentagon, which he says should engage the attention of international observers eager to preserve diplomatic stability.

Xue Li 薛力 | Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of World Economics and Politics Department of International Strategy director

Expert on geopolitical strategy, Xue writes extensively on major bilateral relationships and the terms of BRI engagement. BRI’s launch both reflects the importance Beijing places on regional relations and makes improving the quality and scope of China’s global engagement imperative. BRI will empower China to assume major power responsibilities, Xue argues, while simultaneously benefitting the region and the world. Xue sees China’s increasingly high international profile as conducive to ameliorating bilateral tensions, especially with the US. Beijing is aware that a strong China–US relationship is required for lasting progress on international initiatives, especially BRI.

Chen Qinghong 陈庆鸿 | China Institute of Contemporary International Relations Military and Security Research Institute researcher

As a security expert at CICIR (pictured), Chen is wary of Western interference in China’s regional politics. The US and others routinely seek to interfere in China’s relations with Malaysia and the region, he argues, but those efforts are doomed to fail given China’s strong strategic partnerships. BRI undergirds partner country ties with China, creating lasting areas of win–win cooperation. Despite these areas of shared interest, China must be cautious to clarify that BRI is not solely Beijing’s vision, but a global effort. Nor is it limited to infrastructure construction, writes Chen, incorporating trade, financial, policy and cultural exchanges.


24 nov 2018: an attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi draws concern from the Chinese business community, who call for increased security measures

24 nov 2018: the Australian state of Victoria announces that it signed an MOU with China on BRI

2 nov 2018: Pakistani PM Imran Khan visits China for the first time, emphasising the China–Pakistan ‘strategic partnership’ following campaign rhetoric to be tough on the terms of the CPEC

28 oct 2018: Japan signals that it will join BRI, leading experts to speculate that Abe is steering Tokyo towards closer cooperation with China, not the US

23 sept 2018: Pro–India candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is elected president of the Maldives

17-21 aug 2018: Newly elected Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad visits Beijing, making some critical remarks on terms of BRI investment. Chinese analysts in turn argued that his comments created ‘confusion’ and China–Malaysia relations would remain unchanged

9 dec 2017: the Sri Lankan government signs a 99 year lease with China on the Hambantota port, sparking accusations of ‘debt trap’ diplomacy

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