- By Chris Kremidas Courtney
The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has stirred up passions globally, hailed as a model of altruism by China but triggering criticism in the West. Critics of the BRI point out the so-called debt-trap nature of the projects, as in the example of the surge in Montenegro’s debt in the wake of its highway project with China. Others denounce the low-quality projects, which leave recipient countries dependent to disproportionately regular maintenance. Finally, at the core of Western worries lie the geopolitical strings attached to these projects. The lack of transparency over the BRI’s framework and its projects causes concerns amidst European and G7 countries alike, stoking the fear that low- and middle-income countries may end up under the thumb of an increasingly antagonist power.
A good rebuttal to this, however, is the example of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Launched in 2013 under the BRI’s predecessor, the One Belt, One Road initiative, CPEC is one of the BRI’s key prongs, with an estimated worth of $87bn as of June 2020. This Chinese-Pakistani partnership does not solely benefit China through assertion of its authority in the region: it also reaffirms Pakistan’s regional ascendance by strengthening the relationship between Islamabad and Beijing.
While in the past, governance, transparency and security issues have curbed the international investors’ appetite for Pakistan, the CPEC placed the country back on the map, and rightly so. According to McKinsey Global Institute research, the world’s centre of economic gravity has shifted to Asia; in coming decades, this would particularly narrow down to the bordering region between China and Pakistan. While this doesn’t necessarily translate into Pakistan’s prospects as the global economic powerhouse, it does highlight the potential role of Pakistan in the region.
Contrary to some reports, the power asymmetry in the CPEC is not as strong as it appears. Pakistan has exerted its agency in the formulation and implementation of various CPEC projects. For instance, the geographic route of the CPEC was motivated by Pakistani demands and a clear political plan of the government in Islamabad. Similarly, Pakistan advocated for a selection of port, energy and regional connectivity projects, which were chosen over the alternatives preferred by their Chinese counterparts.
Political will must drive negotiations with new development partners
Challenging the understanding that countries must bow to the bulldozing will of China or act as a puppet in the greater geopolitical scheme of the BRI, Pakistan has fought for its status as an equal throughout the partnership. Along with a few Southeast Asian nations, the country was also able to voice concerns over ongoing projects of the BRI. This example should inspire nations that wish to rely on cross-continental development partnerships to consider the BRI as an exchange between partners rather than a game of ascendance.
Furthermore, with the new Build Back Better World (B3W), the Clean Green Initiative and the G7’s intention to launch its own development and connectivity initiative which emphasises democratic values, low- and middle-income countries now find themselves in a position where they can leverage the competition between East and West. As Pakistan did, these countries can seek to create partnerships on terms that are advantageous to their populations, negotiate loan rates and mitigate the feared economic bondage of the denounced high-risk Chinese projects.
If the EU is serious about the success of its upcoming counter-BRI ‘Connecting Europe Globally’ strategy, it must cease to consider countries as pawns in a game of chess with Asia. Instead, it must increasingly consider each country and region it wishes to partner with, from Africa to Asia, in a new light: as unique nations with sovereignty, agency and potential. Economic concerns on high and safe returns can no longer drive European investment. If the values formulated at the G7 and by the European Commission are to ring true, then political will must drive negotiations with new development partners.
Europe’s concerns about the BRI are valid to an extent. One can easily list the shortcomings of the CPEC and trends of dependency on China have indeed emerged, exemplified by Pakistan’s effort to halt or renegotiate projects. However, if Europe’s willingness to drive development through new connectivity initiatives with Western partners is to be fruitful and to bring positive change, it must abandon the approach of combatting Chinese influence and instead focus on exchanging with its wished development partners.
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