Phillipian Commentary: What’s Xi Thinking?!

For high schoolers like us, time is a valuable commodity. And so, as I stood waiting in line for dinner at Paresky one day, I took the time to browse through some news headlines so as to not seem completely clueless about international relations. While doing so, one particular article caught my eye: “Why the US Needs a Counterstategy to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.” I paid it little attention amidst the sea of other information, but instinctively trusted the article in that I assumed that the initiative was doing well. Once I actually looked into the matter, however, I quickly reversed my opinion.

First, some context. At a press hearing in December of 2018, John Bolton, National Security Advisor of the United States, stared stiffly into the faces of reporters through his wire-rimmed spectacles. He shuffled his notes and launched into a grand speech denouncing China for using “debt diplomacy” in its Belt and Road Initiative. China, he declared, “uses bribes and opaque agreements… to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands[a][b].” Quite the bold statement. Some countries side with America, while others believe the initiative to be benign – most, however, agree that it is a relatively successful venture. On September 6, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (B.R.I.) turns six years old. In spite of the hype around the matter, it is nothing short of a colossal mistake – one that has failed to result in returns, either economic or political, for the party.

Announced in 2014 as a trillion-dollar investment project, the B.R.I. hopes to stimulate economic activity in less developed countries through lending vast amounts of money to regional governments regardless of their financial credibility – the loans are then designed to be spent on major infrastructure projects including roads and ports. Due to the initiative’s leniency when it comes to screening potential partners, it has initially been greeted with fanfare even by countries with poor credit ratings. The initiative has garnered the support of countries encompassing, in aggregate, over half the world’s population and 40 percent of the world’s G.D.P.

At first glance, the B.R.I. seems to be a revolutionary policy that promises economic growth for participants and political stability for China. Yet, take a look at the details, and soon the precarious nature of the B.R.I. comes to light. Deloitte reports that of the 68 countries participating in the initiative, the sovereign debt of 27 has a credit rating of “junk[c]” as per the three main credit agencies while an additional 14 have no rating at all. Not a terribly sound economic venture.

Supporters of the project argue, however, that this is exactly what China is looking for. This is because in cases like the port Hambantota in Sri Lanka (which was handed over to the Chinese government for 99 years after they found themselves unable to repay the debt), China in truth acquires a strategic military foothold. It doesn’t matter that many countries are tottering with the debt of projects or that investments have turned into white elephants, proponents assert, because China was only ever looking for political benefits rather than economic ones. In their minds, China isn’t simply willing to lend to unstable countries – rather, it is actively seeking them out so it could establish overseas military bases and garner even more political influence over the Asiatic region.

But here’s the catch: since these assets lay outside of Chinese soil, the communist party has very little agency when it tries to actually seize them. By pushing too hard they will only stoke more antipathy. And so, the superpower usually reacts by reducing the amount that debtors have to pay. Of the roughly 3000 Chinese-financed foreign projects that John Hopkins University had tracked over the last few years, Hambantota is the only one that has been seized; rather than the norm, it is the exception.

Now, it is true to a certain extent that the Chinese government has at the very least built rapport with other countries in the region that even if it hasn’t gained the economic profits it hoped to have made. With the supposed increase in soft power, China would become a bigger player on the world stage, one whose voice will be heard and echoed by others if only it keeps pouring investment into these countries. This isn’t the case; instead, many countries are growing wary of China’s practice. In May 2018, presidential candidate Mahathir Mohamad defeated the previous Malaysian president through campaigning against Chinese influence and warning of “neo-colonialism[d]”. In Pakistan and the Maldives, The Economist[e] reports that anti-B.R.I. sentiments have bloomed spectacularly and governments have reassessed their relations to Beijing. Kenya, Uganda, Zambia… the list goes on. In fact, even Chinese residents themselves have started muttering, questioning why the state is lavishing money on other countries instead of focusing on internal issues like healthcare, housing, or education.

When B.R.I. was first announced, many countries were enamored with the ease of receiving loans. Five years and 200 billion dollars later, though, they are beginning to wake from their honeymoon. Although it might be difficult for the Chinese government to admit their error or to abandon the project, this does not mean that America – or any other country for that matter – should follow in China’s wake. John Bolton may have been right when he accused China of engineering investments laden with debt traps – but instead of trapping other countries, the state has somehow managed to ensnare itself.

Here at Andover, we aren’t impervious to the dangers of misinformation either. It’s easy to become jittery about issues that later turn out to be overblown, or to trust an article based on its publications merit rather than the information within the article itself. International relationships is a matter that is close to all of our hearts, one that requires a level of thought and reflection more than just skimming through news headlines or insta stories. Before ceding to popular opinion, let us first develop our own understanding of the facts.