For the past decade, Beijing has been actively promoting its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious infrastructure project aimed at providing an alternative to traditional Western-dominated development. This week, representatives from over 140 countries will gather in China for the Belt and Road Forum to discuss action plans for the initiative. As we mark the tenth anniversary of the BRI, it is crucial to appreciate its geopolitical significance and the impact it has had on a human level.
At a strategic level, the BRI is a stroke of genius. In a seminal article published in 1904, Sir Halford John Mackinder argued that the future of geopolitics lay in the development of land transport in Eurasia, creating a “World-Island” that would rival maritime powers like the British Empire. The BRI can be seen as a realization of Mackinder’s vision, as China builds land-based trade routes that challenge the dominance of the United States. While the BRI is primarily an economic initiative, its development has profound geopolitical implications, tilting the world towards a more multipolar order.
The impact of the BRI on participating countries is astounding. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the initiative has increased trade by an average of 4.1% for participating countries, attracted 5% more foreign direct investment, and generated 3.4% more GDP for low-income countries. From 2012 to 2021, the BRI also boosted the GDP share of emerging and developing economies by 3.6%. By 2030, it is estimated that the BRI will generate $1.6 trillion in annual revenue. These numbers speak to the tremendous positive impact the initiative has had on the global economy, particularly in the Global South.
The World Bank has also recognized the poverty-alleviating effects of the BRI. Between 2015 and 2030, it is projected that the initiative will help 40 million people escape poverty. Chinese investment through the BRI has already created 421,000 local jobs and implemented over 3,000 projects. These projects have focused on improving infrastructure and interconnecting global trade, addressing practical issues that enhance people’s quality of life.
To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the BRI and highlight the human impact of Chinese investment, China Global Television Network (CGTN) has launched a new series called ‘Rising with Pride.’ The series showcases stories from around the world where BRI projects have made a tangible difference. In Bolivia, for example, the San Jose II hydroelectric power plant has brought electricity to rural communities like Colomi, improving access to information and education. Hector Cespedes Veizaga, a local indigenous man, attests to the transformative effect the BRI has had on his family’s life.
China’s commitment to poverty alleviation goes beyond the BRI. The country has successfully lifted over 800 million people out of poverty in the last four decades, declaring victory against abject poverty in 2021. In line with this achievement, China has recently launched the Global Development Initiative (GDI), which aims to promote sustainable and mutually beneficial projects.
Despite its undeniable successes, the BRI has faced criticism, often propagated by Western officials and anti-China pundits. One common critique is the notion of “debt-trap diplomacy,” suggesting that participating countries become indebted to China through BRI loans. However, this claim is easily debunked. Analysis of the debt held by low-to-middle-income countries reveals that it is predominantly owed to Western-backed institutions like the World Bank and IMF, with Chinese loans accounting for a tiny fraction. To date, no evidence exists to support claims of Chinese loans leading to the downfall of any country.
Another point of contention is the perception that Chinese investments come with strings attached. While it is true that China pursues its own strategic interests, the concept of “win-win cooperation” underpins its approach. China aims to align its interests with those of partner countries, ensuring mutual benefits. However, not all countries have seen tangible benefits from joining the BRI. Some, like those within the 17+1 format, have not experienced the expected returns on Chinese investments. This has led to the withdrawal of several countries from the format, disillusioned by unfulfilled promises of billions of dollars in investment.
It is essential to remember that the BRI’s impact varies from country to country. The fact that some countries have not seen immediate benefits does not negate the overall positive influence of the initiative. Moreover, the mere existence of the BRI provides an alternative to Western-dominated development institutions like the World Bank and IMF. It empowers countries to choose the option that best suits their needs and preferences, promoting a more diverse global order.
As we reflect on the tenth anniversary of the BRI, it is evident that China’s ambitious infrastructure project has significantly reshaped geopolitics and positively impacted the lives of millions. While challenges and criticisms persist, the BRI stands as a testament to China’s commitment to global development and its willingness to offer an alternative path to prosperity.