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International Relations

The second Belt and Road Forum (BRF) concluded in Beijing last Saturday. The signature foreign policy move of Chinese President, Xi Jinping, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is a massive undertaking in which Beijing provides loans to other countries for various kinds of projects ranging from connectivity to energy. The overland part (the belt) and the maritime part (the road) together aim to connect Asia, Africa and Europe into a large economic entity that works to China’s advantage. Over time, the BRI has faced mounting international criticism. China used the second BRF to address them.

Since its inception in 2013, a number of countries have jumped onto the BRI bandwagon. The primary reason: High demand for capital, especially in emerging economies with massive infrastructure deficit. But there are other factors. A number of state leaders use the BRI to funnel money into projects to boost their political appeal. The die was cast. With the money directed on political logic, several projects failed to generate revenues that could repay the loans. With labour and key input materials imported from China, the BRI projects didn’t really uplift local economies. Several environmental and human rights issues too cropped up. India, which sat out of the inaugural BRF in 2017 mainly on sovereignty grounds — BRI projects in Pakistan pass through disputed territory in Kashmir — began to raise a number of these issues. Gradually, other countries, including the US, joined the chorus of criticism.

The joint communique issued on Saturday specifically addresses all the controversial aspects of the BRI. It pledges respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all the states involved. The communique talks about “extensive consultations”, “shared and mutual benefits”, “importance of the rule of law”, “openness, transparency, inclusiveness and level playing field”. All the cooperation under BRI, the communique notes, will be “open, green and clean” and “will pursue high standard, people-centred and sustainable development”. It is difficult to find a fault with anything in this statement. Execution, of course, is a completely different matter. If China wants this communique to be taken seriously, it should transform the BRI into a genuinely multilateral initiative — despite the pretence of multilateralism, it is still a collection of strictly bilateral arrangements — and allow the collective weight of other countries to be reflected in drawing up a charter of rules for BRI projects.

First Published: Apr 29, 2019 20:17 IST

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