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The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is nearing close to a decade since its initiation in 2013. The ambitious plan included building a series of infrastructure projects including roads, railways, pipelines to increase connectivity and strengthen China’s energy security and geopolitical position. The initiative signalled China’s growing power projection and opportunities for smaller countries who saw this as an alternative mechanism to diversify from the existing western led mechanisms. In the recent years, the BRI has been surrounded with several challenges in its application. While, several countries have benefited from the investments, there seems to be a challenge in realising the long-term challenges and strategic objectives of China’s investments in these countries and the way the BRI projects have been implemented.


The sustainability of the BRI projects had been raised by several countries including India since the project’s initiation. While, geopolitical capabilities had substantially initiated these sentiments, the unravelling of these projects seemed to ally these fears. The Chinese investment in Hambantota port in the South of Sri Lanka is a good case in point to understand this issue. The Sri Lanka government failed to meet the repayments on the loans and was thus left with no other alternative but to hand over the port to the Chinese. Beijing today has the Hambantota port for a lease of 99 years. The Chinese companies are also involved in the development of the land around the port.


This raises the question of sovereignty for the smaller nations and what will happen if they fail to repay. As result, a number of countries today are rethinking their initial projects under the BRI. One of the latest being the debate surrounding the funding of the construction of the Padma Bridge in Bangladesh. The bridge was inaugurated in June 2022. After that Beijing announced that it was a project completed under the BRI, while Dhaka negated it and asserted that it was a domestically funded project. Even Pakistan and Myanmar have announced reduction in the amount of funding involved in various projects under the BRI.


Several other countries, namely in Africa such as Ghana, Congo, Sierra Leone, in Asia such as Malaysia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, all have been revisiting their projects with China and most of them have cancelled some of the major projects. To ease the negativity Beijing did announce that it will waiver some of its loans to the poorer African nations. However, the amount of the loan thus waived was not even one percent of the total loans extended. This decision will technically not have any major impact on the amount that the African nations need to repay.


Another major challenge for the BRI has come from the Covid 19 pandemic. The outbreak of the pandemic derailed a lot of projects under the BRI as the global economy suffered a major setback and the supply chains were derailed. As a result, the recipient countries’ economies also suffered and thus, most of the poorer countries were forced to end or postpone the projects. The Covid 19 pandemic also affected the Chinese economy and thus Beijing’s financial capacities to continue with the investments under the BRI.  As per reports, around 15 major projects amounting to 2.4 billion dollars were affected due to the Covid 19 pandemic. In 2020 Wang Xiaolong, the director general of the foreign ministry’s international economic affairs department had said that around “a fifth of the Chinese projects under the BRI were seriously affected by the pandemic”. To add to this the zero Covid policy adopted by the Chinese government has resulted in a slow recovery of the Chinese economy.


Apart from the geopolitical challenges the BRI is also facing resistance and criticisms from the domestic populations. In several countries in Africa as well like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Chinese worker have been facing violence. The fact that China exports its workers with its investment has led to a lot of criticisms. Because of this the narrative that is building is that the Chinese investments do not benefit the local populations as they do not generate the number of jobs expected from them and these investments only profit the people and governments in power. Because of this there are two more hurdles in the path of the BRI today. In 2021 there were reports that about 40, 000 people in Nepal were adversely affected by the Budhi Gandaki hydro project. In addition to this the two other major criticisms of the BRI projects have been, one is of corruption and the other is of environmental degradation.


In its capacities, Beijing has now been using its economic and financial clout to gain leverage with the smaller nations. BRI is now being perceived as a Chinese project to extend it hegemonic and expansionist ambitions. China has used its deep financial pockets to make inroads into smaller countries and now has managed to interfere in their sovereignty. The presence of Chinese workers and in some cases Chinese military (for the protection of Chinese investments’ overseas) greatly hampers the benign and purely economic agenda driving the BRI. The BRI is no more just a win-win initiative. It has affected a lot of people across the globe and that too adversely.


Thus, no surprise that the BRI did not receive a major focus during the speech by Xi Jinping at the 20th Party Congress. Xi did mention it briefly and said, “We will make appropriate reductions to the negative list for foreign investment, protect the rights and interests of foreign investors in accordance with the law, and foster a world-class business environment that is market-oriented, law-based, and internationalized. We will promote the high-quality development of the Belt and Road Initiative”. However, the major focus of the Chinese government under Xi Jinping today is the Global Development Initiative (GDI). The Chinese government today is set to promote the GDI, however, it can be argued that this is just a packaging of the existing BRI under more benign cover. From the notion of a belt and road Beijing is now trying to show that it is focussed on global development.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal