China's Belt & Road Initiative: a decade of promise, debate, controversy and (for some) bitter disappointment
By Olivier Guillard, a specialist in Asian issues, research associate at the Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, a researcher at CERIAS (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada), Director of Information at CRISIS24 (Paris), and lecturer (geopolitics; political science) at EDHEC Business School (Lille).
How to cite this publication
Olivier Guillard, China's Belt & Road Initiative: a decade of promise, debate, controversy and (for some) bitter disappointment, Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, Paris, Septemver 27, 2023.
The views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author. The illustrative image, which is free of rights, was chosen by the editorial team.
Early September, with the chaotic China-US relations, the multiple stigmas of 3 years of pandemics and the grim drama unfolding over the last 20 months in the Ukraine providing an uncomfortable backdrop, President Xi Jinping's People's Republic of China was celebrating the 10th anniversary of its ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project, later renamed the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), which Chinese marketing has liked to present from the outset as the "project of the century"... A project of the century in many respects presented as an infrastructure development program with the ultimate ambition of linking the world's 2nd largest economy to markets and economies the world over with a network of roads, trains, ports, and other infrastructure, to boost connectivity  and economic growth while strengthening mutual cooperation and offering broader development prospects  ; for a benefit (economic, commercial, strategic) that is supposed to be shared among its many partners, and not reserved for its creator or the service of its foreign policy and strategic agenda…
Certainly, since Xi Jinping's 1st mention in September 2013 in Astana (Kazakhstan) - building an "Economic Belt along the Silk Road " -, the project of the century has gained a significant number of participants (151 countries  have signed a memorandum of understanding with Beijing), given substance to nearly 3,000 local/regional cooperation projects which have so far required colossal investments (on the order of $1,000 billion), created a priori (according to Chinese statistics) several hundred thousand jobs and lifted some 40 million people  out of poverty in the countries associated with this initiative. It's true that at the same time, from an accounting perspective that will probably not have displeased Beijing, between 2013 and 2022, trade between China and BRI partner countries doubled (from $1,000 to $2,000 billion) ...
In October, to give added luster - if not fresh impetus - to the 10th anniversary of the BRI, Beijing will host the 3rd edition of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF), which is expected to be attended by representatives from some 100 BRI member countries . President V. Putin, persona non grata in many capitals since Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022, will be present at this forum, at the invitation of his Chinese counterpart. A controversial presence by definition: this will be the Kremlin master's 1st foreign trip since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him in March 2023, on the grounds that (according to the ICC) he is responsible for "war crimes in certain occupied areas of Ukraine" .
On September 13-14, ahead of the BRF scheduled for October in the Chinese capital, the former British colony of Hong Kong  organized a Belt And Road Summit, a "leading international platform for the promotion of business collaboration along the Belt and Road, bringing together senior officials and business leaders from countries and regions along and beyond the Belt and Road to exchange views on multilateral cooperation and explore concrete business opportunities", to quote its advantageous business presentation . This event was greeted by the Chinese state medias, pleased to note, among other things, an "Unprecedented participation", signaling, in the words of the editor, that "Hong Kong is once again at the forefront of the world stage" . A rather advantageous prose, indeed (here again).
On the other hand, the Chinese daily was less forthcoming on another recent initiative, articulated by Washington and New Delhi, announced in the Indian capital during the G20 summit (Sept. 9-10), which is likely to compete to some extent with, if not duplicate, the BRI dear to President Xi Jinping. This is the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) project, which aims to link India to various countries in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and Europe via a trade corridor comprising ports, modern rail links and efficient roads .
Unlike the BRI, the IMEC  has a smaller format and, at this stage, does not envisage the participation of Asian or African countries. It will comprise two distinct corridors: an Eastern corridor linking India to the Persian Gulf; and a Northern corridor linking the Gulf to Europe. The first signatories include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Italy, all three of which are also partners of the Beijing BRI.
On this issue, let's say a few words about Rome's intentions about its future participation in China's BRI (after having joined this initiative in 2019), a priori called into question by the Italian government; a desire to withdraw verbalized and motivated by the volume of Italian exports to the world's 2nd largest economy. For Italy's current Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, "The decision to join the (new) Silk Road was an improvised and atrocious act" , which would have boosted Chinese exports to Italy without having the same effect on Italian exports to China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi may consider the decision "ill-advised" , but the mood in the Eternal City seems more one of withdrawal  than mea culpa.
In Europe, it's not just in Italy that the disappointment of joining the BRI is being deplored. Across the Rhine, in Duisburg (Germany) to be precise - which boasts the world's busiest inland port (20,000 ships and 25,000 trains a year) - the hype is now more one of disillusionment than celebration, in what has been one of the central pieces of China's presence in Europe  over the past decade. The way our neighbors on the other side of the Rhine view the expected benefits of Chinese investment, the influence of the former Middle Kingdom in the country, and its external image, has deteriorated  significantly. To say the least, and Beijing's guilty understanding of Moscow's military adventurism in the Ukraine - by road, Kiev is only 1400 km from Berlin... - is hardly in its favor.
On September 19, the Chinese ambassador to the European Union based his remarks on the "successes" of the BRI in Europe (according to Beijing) - namely the acquisition of the port of Piraeus in Athens (Greece), the financing of the Belgrade-Budapest rail link and the Peljesac bridge in Croatia - and did his best to restore the BRI's focus in Europe to a more promising dynamic, arguing that the Chinese initiative ''was not intended to harm the West'' .
While questions are being raised in Europe, the same is true of certain Asian nations that are notoriously more Sino-compatible, if not Sinophile, such as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Asian touchstone if ever there was one for the BRI in Asia, with its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). ''I am happy and proud to say that the CPEC is one of BRI's most successful  projects", declared the Chinese chargé d'affaires in Islamabad a few days ago. However, observers noted in early September that no high-ranking Chinese official had made the trip to the Pakistani capital for the 10th anniversary of this "most successful" project... The previous month, in a meeting between Pakistani Prime Minister S. Sharif and his Chinese counterpart Li Qiang, the latter had relayed Beijing's clear message of firmness to its Pakistani partner, whose multiple security fragilities need no introduction: ''China hopes that Pakistan will resolutely and effectively tackle the various terrorist organizations present in the country, and ensure the safety of Chinese institutions and personnel in Pakistan'' .
An understandable request in view of the investment involved, but above all in view of the human toll of attacks carried out in 2021 and 2022 by various Pakistani terrorist entities  specifically targeting Chinese nationals present in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, whether involved in projects linked to CPEC or BRI. Let's not forget the (rather unconvincing) comments made by Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, when questioned by a Japanese media outlet about the possibility of his country being lured in a debt trap with Chinese creditors : "It is wrong to claim that Pakistan is trapped in a Chinese debt trap. Most Chinese aid to Pakistan takes the form of investments or soft loans" .
"In ten years, the 'Belt and Road' has changed the world", proclaimed a Chinese media outlet  a few days ago, unilaterally taking the view that the evidence was "incontrovertible", and deploring the fact that the BRI had "generated criticism and unfounded accusations". This summary, which is highly advantageous for Chinese interests, needs to be qualified.
In conclusion, the author of this humble tribune invites Beijing's diplomacy to show more reserve and modesty, to take the measure of the difficulties facing many countries today associated to the "project of the century" (we're thinking here of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Congo, among other countries hard hit by the crippling accounting impact of their participation in the BRI) , to be more transparent when concluding agreements with these States in terms of loan conditions for example (when the latter are in a precarious political or financial situation), and finally, without being unnecessarily naive, not to systematically give priority to Chinese geopolitical interests to the detriment of the expectations and needs of local populations.
It is at this fair price that this ambitious Chinese initiative, now entering its second decade, will benefit from a less severe gaze, with external credit still certainly lacking in the second half of 2023, particularly in the West.
 Xinhua News Agency (China), September 25, 2023.
 ''The 10th Anniversary of the Joint Construction of the ''Belt and Road Initiative: Fruitful Results and Promising Future'', Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan, July 4, 2023.
 ''10th anniversary of BRI both milestone and new starting point for China-Kazakhstan cooperation: Ambassador'', Global Times (China), September 11, 2023.
 44 countries from sub-Saharan Africa, 35 from Europe and Central Asia, 31 from Asia-Pacific, 21 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 18 from the Middle East and North Africa.
 Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan, July 4, 2023.
 Reuters, September 4, 2023.
 Press release, International Criminal Court, March 17, 2023.
 Back in Beijing's fold a quarter of a century ago (1997).
 Global Times, September 13, 2023.
 ''At China's Belt and Road Summit, Participants Welcome US – India's Rival Plan'', Voice of America English News, September 15, 2023.
 Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, France, Germany, Italy, the USA, and the EU.
 Il Corriere Della Sera (Italy), July 30, 2023.
 Global Times (China), September 5, 2023.
 Italy has until the end of 2023 to withdraw, failing which its participation will be extended for a further 5 years...
 Huawei and Duisburg city had signed an agreement to turn the city of 500,000 into a smart city, while by 2019, no less than 100 Chinese companies had invested in the area and opened offices and branches.
 ''The 10th Anniversary of the BRI: Local Implications A Decade On'', The Wilson Center (USA), September 20, 2023.
 ''Chinese ambassador: Belt-and-Road is not an effort to undermine the West'', Euractiv, September 19, 2023.
 And certainly one of the most costly, with the overall investment envelope for this CPEC estimated by experts around $60 billion, spread over a host of industrial, energy, transport infrastructure and other projects.
 ''Security Concerns, Payment Disputes Hinder China's BRI Investment in Pakistan', Voice of America English News, July 6, 2023.
 In July 2021, 9 Chinese nationals working on the Dasu Hydropower Project (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, 370 km Northeast of Peshawar) were killed in a suicide attack. In April 2022, a car bomb in Karachi claimed three more Chinese victims.
 In particular, due to the substantial loans obtained from the latter to finance the CPEC.
 ''Security Concerns, Payment Disputes Hinder China's BRI Investment in Pakistan', Voice of America English News, July 6, 2023.
 French China.org.cn, September 15, 2023.
 Jenny K. Jacobs, The BRI STATUS. A Grand Report on Its Present and Future, Investigative Journalism Reportika, May 27, 2023.