Is China's BRI failing despite COVID19 and India's Act East Policy?

Updated: May 26

Satyajith MS,

Research Intern (Indian International Law Project),

Internationalism Research.

Prafful Tonge,

Junior Research Analyst,

Internationalism Research.

The Belt and Road Initiative: An Introduction

The world has seen a transition in the late twentieth century where countries seek to dominate the world economically. With this, we see the rise of economic imperialism. China has left no stone unturned in taking initiatives to overtake the United States of America as an economic global powerhouse by 2049. (Wani, 2020) The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which was launched in 2013, was not the first time that China has been engaged in infrastructure development for improving connectivity between its neighbours. For instance, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor which predates the launch of BRI was initiated in the 1990s. (Baurah, 2018) While it is true that since the launch of BRI China has undertaken other bilateral and multilateral projects, it also stitches together various other projects which were initiated before 2013 under a single umbrella. It is said to be a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations.

There are significant economic benefits which will accrue to the South Asian countries by the implementation of the China-led BRI. World Bank estimates suggest that the successful implementation of the BRI projects will result in boosting trade and cutting travel time in the economic corridors by 12 per cent. It also estimates that it will lift 7.6 million people out of extreme poverty, and increase their incomes by 3.4 per cent.

The Belt and Road Initiative is widespread and covers Europe, Asia, The Middle East, Africa and to be exact, the rest of the globe in one or the other. This is aimed to create a global economic trade route to strengthen the economies of the participating nations as well as to boost the international trade in all aspects as this initiative covers the road, rail and sea transport all in one. This is aimed to create a strong strategic and economic network of trade.

China’s role in the Initiative

China has led the whole initiative even in terms of its investments and economic resources spent. After significantly improving connectivity in its western provinces through the Great Western Development Strategy, which includes the Xinjiang region, China has now expanded to improving connectivity beyond its borders. BRI projects have been infamous for lack of transparency, nepotism and allegations of corruption. Data available in the public domain suggests that around 89 per-cent of contracts for BRI projects have been given to companies which have Chinese origins, 7.6 per-cent to domestic companies where the project is undertaken, and 3.7 per-cent to other foreign companies.

The initiative has been wildly speculated in developing a China-centric global market which will further enhance its capabilities in key strategic locations. It is opined that it aims to indebt target countries and then leveraging this to gain undue influence over it which may eventually threaten the sovereignty of the nation and the neighbouring countries as well.

Apart from this, like the way China systematically changed the demography of Xinjiang province through the mantra of economic development, we also see that China has been actively involving the Han population in the development of the infrastructure projects under the BRI as labourers. China has developing colonies for its workers in countries where the projects are undertaken. Estimates suggest that 10,000 Chinese are said to be living in Islamabad and another 35,000 in other parts of the country. It is reported that a gated ‘proxy colony’ is being constructed near the Gwadar port in Pakistan which is expected to exclusively house 500,000 Chinese Han nationals, who will come to work in the area, by 2022. China is infamously known for claiming territorial sovereignty over regions due to shared cultural history which has no basis in international law. So, two centuries down the line, one should not be surprised if China claims territorial sovereignty over Pakistan pointing out to these settlements as a basis of shared cultural heritage.

India’s Concerns regarding the BRI

India had always been sceptical about The Belt and Road Initiative as in suspicious about the aftereffects of the completion of a project of such a large scale, not only on the geographical but also on the economic impacts of the same. This is not in particular with India but also in general. As a project of such a massive scale is definitely going to alter the individual standings of the involved nations as and when a situation arises affecting the relationships between them. China may influence the decisions of the participating nations in one way or other which will only lead to unrest in the particular regions and will also have global implications depending on the situation at hand. India’s concern as far as the BRI is concerned related to four projects which has a direct impact- the CPEC, the BCIM Economic Corridor, the Trans-Himalayan Economic Corridor, and the MSR. The CPEC runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, a territory over which India exercises sovereignty.

Apart from this, India also has apprehensions of the growing hegemony of China, which may be bolstered by this initiative. India’s concern does not primarily come from economic interests, but the strategic and security interests. China’s disregard of India’s territorial sovereignty, especially in the Kashmir region has been a major concern. Apart from the fact that the CPEC runs through PoK, since a long time, there have been disputes between China and India over Pakistan ceding a part