China’s leader Xi Jinping is throwing a 10th anniversary bash for the Belt & Road Initiative, his $1-trillion plan to leverage Beijing’s financial resources into expanded geopolitical clout. State-controlled media is touting the BRI as a “widely appreciated public good and global driver of inclusive growth.” But the data suggests that behind BRI’s hype lies lots of unfulfilled expectations.
Xi on October 17 greeted a parade of foreign guests from over 140 nations, including Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Russian leader Vladimir Putin was also expected to put in an appearance during the two-day event. At an evening welcome banquet Xi said that BRI had “delivered thousands of practical cooperation projects, and achieved solid and substantial results.”
The high praise for BRI’s achievements, however, was delivered against a backdrop of a scaled-back blueprint for its future. In recent years, Beijing has downsized its strategy, backing away from funding grandiose infrastructure projects and instead concentrating on smaller, more environmentally friendly undertakings. The shift is a reflection both of China’s deepening domestic economic woes and the reality that, while BRI has indeed fostered economic growth, many BRI-financed projects are underutilized, leaving China holding a mountain of potentially bad debt that does little to enhance Beijing’s image among the debtor nations.
It was during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013 that Xi began sketching his BRI vision. And in those early days, the region was seen as the primary focus of BRI investment. But a decade later, Central Asia stands largely on the sidelines of BRI-generated trade growth. According to data published by the China Daily, a Chinese government mouthpiece, Beijing’s annual trade turnover with BRI participating countries topped $2-trillion in 2022, but Central Asian states accounted for just over 3 percent of that total, or roughly $70 billion.
A major driver of regional trade was supposed to be the Khorgos free economic zone, straddling the Kazakh-Chinese frontier. The facility, however, has not come close to fulfilling its potential, hindered by rampant smuggling.
A white paper published by China’s State Council Information Office, titled The Belt and Road Initiative: A Key Pillar of the Global Community of Shared Future, highlights the fact that, when it comes to BRI, Central Asia is of secondary importance to Africa and the European Union. While the paper contains dozens of references to Africa and the EU, Kazakhstan gets five mentions, while Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan get two each. Turkmenistan received a solitary citation and Tajikistan none at all.
The white paper, which lauds BRI’s record, perhaps gives its greatest level of attention to Central Asia when outlining Beijing’s efforts to preserve cultural heritage. “China, Kyrgyzstan, Iran and other Central and West Asian countries jointly launched the Alliance for Cultural Heritage in Asia – the first international cooperation mechanism regarding Asian cultural heritage,” the white paper states. “The projects under the framework of the alliance, for example the protection and restoration of Uzbekistan’s ancient city of Khiva, have been highly commended by UNESCO.”
An analysis published by researchers at Boston University, titled The BRI at Ten, affirms that the BRI has produced tangible economic benefits for participating countries, giving countries comprising the Global South options for “additional and alternative sources of much needed financing that provide more opportunities for developing country agency.” The report also notes BRI financing has focused to date more on infrastructure and industrial development than that extended by other international lenders, such as the World Bank, whose lending priorities tend to emphasize “institutional capacity building.”
At the same time, the BU report contends BRI has a big downside, greatly exacerbating the level of debt distress experienced by many participating states, as well as compounding global warming. “China’s overseas fleet of fossil-fuel power plants emits around 245 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, contributing to climate change,” the report states. “China’s overseas infrastructure also contributes land use change that causes further greenhouse gas emissions and poses risks to biodiversity and Indigenous lands. Proper air pollution technology controls are essential to mitigating health costs from Chinese-financed fossil fuel power plants.”
China has tacitly acknowledged that BRI has saddled many states with unsustainable levels of debt by expressing a willingness to defer some repayments. But so far Beijing has given no indication of forgiving any of its loans.
An investigative report by The New York Times found that at least some BRI projects were imposed on states under favorable terms designed to benefit Chinese lenders and builders. In the days leading up to the BRI anniversary celebration, Chinese leaders pushed back vigorously against the narrative that BRI was designed as a “debt trap.”
The “so-called ‘debt trap’ is often cited to support the claims of ‘Chinese neocolonialism’,” stated a commentary published by the state news agency Xinhua. “This argument lacks fundamental logic and primarily serves as a political tactic of certain countries to tarnish China’s reputation and create divisions between China and its Belt and Road partners.”