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Belt and Road Initiative: colonialism with Chinese characteristics?

Far from being ‘debt traps,’ BRI projects are establishing an essential framework for economic development and creating the conditions for formerly colonised countries to break out of dependency, says CARLOS MARTINEZ

THE Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a global infrastructure development strategy proposed by China in 2013. 

Unprecedented in scope, the BRI is modelled on the Silk Road — a vast trading network that arose during the Han dynasty (206BC–220AD) and which connected China with India, central Asia and further afield.

The BRI seeks to promote global economic integration and co-operation via the construction of vast numbers of roads, railways, bridges, factories, ports, airports, energy infrastructure and telecommunications systems, all of which will enable deeper integration of markets and more efficient allocation of resources.

As of early 2021, 140 countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have signed up to BRI projects. 

BRI investment projects are estimated to add at least a trillion dollars of infrastructure financing in the 10 years from 2017.

The basic economic motivation of the BRI is to drive growth through expanding co-operation and co-ordination across borders. 

Politically, the project fits into China’s longstanding approach of using economic integration to increase the cost (and thereby reduce the likelihood) of confrontation.

Academic Peter Nolan writes that “China is in a position to make use of its rich experience in domestic infrastructure construction in order to make a major contribution to the development of the Silk Road in central and south-east Asia.” 

A key political byproduct of this is “stimulating harmonious relations between the countries.” (Understanding China: The Silk Road and the Communist Manifesto, 2016).

China is uniquely well placed to be the driving force of such a project, given its size, its location and the nature of its economy. 

The Portuguese politician and academic Bruno Macaes observes that the essentially planned nature of the Chinese economy, with the state “firmly in charge of the financial system,” has enabled China to act quickly and decisively, directing immense financial resources towards BRI projects. (Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, 2018).

However, the BRI has been labelled by a range of political forces as a neocolonial project. 

The right-wing Lowy Institute think tank describes it as “colonialism with Chinese characteristics.” 

Meanwhile Ashley Smith and Kevin Lin, writing in the Democratic Socialists of America’s Socialist Forum, consider it to be “unmistakably imperialist.” 

They claim China is locking entire countries into “dependent development,” even “deindustrialising some countries like Brazil and reducing all to serving the needs of Chinese capitalism.”

This latter critique is more Mike Pompeo than Vladimir Lenin, and connects to an emerging new cold war policy of blaming all economic problems on China. 

It’s certainly the case that more open markets render some businesses unviable, but overall China’s emergence as Brazil’s largest trading partner has been beneficial for the people of both countries. 

Indeed Brazil’s foreign minister in the Lula government, Celso Amorim, considered the blossoming China-Brazil relationship to be at the heart of a “reconfiguration of the world’s commercial and diplomatic geography.”

If the BRI truly seeks to impose “dependent development,” it’s perhaps surprising that nearly every country in the global South has signed up to it — including 42 of Africa’s 56 countries. Surely not all turkeys are voting for Christmas?

Belt and Road projects are establishing an essential framework for economic development and are thereby creating the conditions for formerly colonised countries to break out of dependency, to evade the economic coercion perpetrated by the US and its allies.

A major factor in the decline of the Washington Consensus — the imposition of “shock doctrine” economics — has been the availability of alternative financing, particularly from Chinese or China-led development banks; even the IMF and World Bank have had to scale back their loan conditionalities, as debtor countries now have better options. 

Writer Kevin Gallagher notes that, for example, Latin American leaders “have been reluctant to further bind their economies to Washington Consensus policies — in large part because they believe they have an alternative in China.” (The China Triangle, 2016).

Furthermore, the trajectory of BRI investment is towards environmentally friendly projects — for example, wind, solar and hydropower made up 57 per cent of BRI energy investments in 2020, up from 38 per cent in 2019.

While much noise has been made in the West in relation to “debt trap diplomacy” along the Belt and Road, the actual situation is that “virtually every study that looks at the terms of developing country debt sees developed country lending as more onerous than that of China,” writes Brad Glosserman in the Japan Times.

Responding to accusations that China had created a Belt and Road “debt trap” in Pakistan, the Chinese ambassador noted that 42 per cent of Pakistan’s debt is to multilateral institutions and that Chinese preferential loans only constitute 10 per cent. 

Writing recently in The Atlantic, Deborah Brautigam and Meg Rithmire debunk the debt trap narrative, forensically examining its canonical example: that of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. 

Brautigam and Rithmire comment that the idea of a cynical China hoodwinking naive governments in the global South “wrongfully portrays both Beijing and the developing countries it deals with” — indeed it contains an element of racism, the idea that the majority of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are lining up to be bamboozled by a Chinese colonialism that’s so cunning as to not even require gunboats.

The BRI unquestionably promotes globalisation, but globalisation and imperialism are not the same thing. 

The original Silk Road was “the epicentre of one of the first waves of globalisation, connecting eastern and western markets, spurring immense wealth, and intermixing cultural and religious traditions.” (CFR: China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative).

This is evidently a form of globalisation, but without the domination and coercion that characterise imperialism.

The development of trade, building of infrastructure and expansion of friendly co-operation are all in the interests of the peoples of the participating countries. 

To compare such a process to imperialism as practised by western Europe, North America and Japan is an insult to the hundreds of millions throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Pacific that have endured the misery of colonial and neocolonial subjugation. 

The Western powers are certainly concerned about the Belt and Road, given its “practical significance of shifting the world’s centre of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” in the words of Henry Kissinger. 

But that ought not to be anything for socialists to be afraid of.

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