China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the COVID-19 Emergency

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The world economies have started to look inwards, closing their borders, and tightening their surveillance. The ongoing signs of economic slump predict that it is here to stay for long. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), purported to be the game-changer in the sphere of global politics, altering the political and economic geography of the world. 

 It is a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure project that spans from the western Chinese corridor connecting three continents, Europe, Africa and Asia with China as the behemoth. As the new China-age certainty is under question at large, there are exigent questions that need to be answered concerning the BRI.

The pandemic has changed China’s approach to its political-economic priorities, shifting the focus on immediate domestic economic recuperation, maintaining CCP’s continuity of power, urban unemployment and the middle-income trap. 

The Belt and Road Initiative is the modern-day rendition of the historic Silk Route, that was the major trade and cultural route in the ancient and medieval world. The ambitious plan aims to build six major economic corridors and including at least a hundred of economies in the entire stretch spanning through continents. 

BRI seeks to strengthen China’s position as the unipolar hegemon in the world affairs, by controlling most resource-rich and energy-rich region of the world. The six corridors are: 

1. China, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar Economic Corridor

2. China, Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – From Xinjiang Province to Pakistan’s Gwadar port.

3. China, Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor – Connecting Vietnam, Thailand, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Malaysia.

4. China, Central Asia, West Asia Economic Corridor – Connecting Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey.

5. China, Mongolia, Russia Economic Corridor – Connects rail links and the steppe road.

6. New Eurasia Land Bridge- Rail project to Europe through Kazakstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland.

As the entire notion of global connectivity comes to a standstill and possibly shifting in reverse gear, how is BRI going to sustain itself? Is the biggest game-changer in the neoliberal age of interconnectivity with the influx of massive investment, filled with anticipation and fear that assured China of its non-rivalrous ascendancy to the superpower status, came to an end?

The brutal hit came in the form of disruption of the global supply chain, the impact of breaking the economies due to quarantine and lockdown measures as an immediate response to control the spread of the virus. The infallibility of the initiative was assured. And now, it all withers away. The suspension and containment of work projects, curtailment of to-and-fro trade, as usual, dire implications on labour resources are few of the immediate concerns that the BRI is grappling with.

Although the talk of the decline of the western hegemony isn’t new, the cataclysmic rise of China surely was. China will have to address the festering political and economic problems in the domestic sphere, which were meticulously planned to be blanketed from the world scrutiny behind the iron gates. The failing public health system coupled with the restriction on the information flow to the outside world and administrative laxity to address the worsening situation was the reason the disease multiplied uncontrollably. 

It would be irresponsible to both undervalue and overvalue China’s position, and especially in the context of the expanding ambitions that it harbours. 

The question remains, what is the possibility of the fate of BRI post-COVID-19? Various factors need to be taken into account. China’s debt diplomacy works as the trump card that it uses without fail to attain geostrategic advantages and dominance over its project partners. The biggest creditor in the world has surely some tricks up their sleeves. Their methodology is clear if the debtor fails to clear their debt, they face the consequences of greater Chinese involvement to harness their the geo-political, security and economical resources to China’s benefit. 

Maybe we are accelerating towards a new form of twenty-first-century colonisation, through the means debts and dependence, under the pretext of multilateralism. 

The one-sided Chinese heavy-handedness and lack of equal say in the bilateral partnerships, dearth transparency and accountability the have raised many eyebrows, including India. The reluctance comes from the way China manoeuvres in the bilateral and multilateral partnership, making its intention clear that it is China itself that will hold the reins of power to themselves.

The project financiers, employers, contractors and businesspersons have had to face the major brunt with the halt. As the economies of the world plan to move towards more self-reliance with the disruption of the taken-for-granted interconnected economic systems of the world, it seems from the outside that the Belt and Road Initiative has been put it in the backseat for now. 

China’s process of intrusion and planting themselves in the new markets to diversify their economy can have a major setback, as the debt-ridden countries hope to seek relief. The trade relationship with the BRI partners has been plummeting already, due to the tremors of the pandemic. 

The soaring disbelief, anxiety and a hovering scepticism on the all-for-win situation that the golden era of BRI promised can be seen. The issue of promised multilateral ties is also under keener scrutiny due to the fact of the complete dominance of one side (China) over the other.

China commands financial institutions and banks that oversee the BRI projects and lends infrastructural loans and investment. New Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, BRICS bank, and Chinese backed financial capital have already been roped in the infrastructural investment. The estimated investment already stashes inflating “hidden debt” in trillions of dollars, from the speculation. 

However, this is not the end, as China’s purposeful rebranding of the Belt and Road Initiative to Health Silk Road in its efforts to control and subvert the world narrative about China’s role in the pandemic is gaining traction. PRC’s “mask diplomacy” harping on the strategic soft power moves, sending in doctors, health care professionals, medical aids and instruments to propel confidence-building measures with the European and South Asian countries. It was complemented by the “warrior wolf” diplomacy as the other side of the same coin when confidence-building measures were not doing enough to send the message.

PRC’s reinvigorated aims to become the new global health leader are not unfounded. The pandemic has made the world realise that the meaning of infrastructure and development doesn’t stop at bridges and tunnels. It also includes health infrastructure and capabilities, sustainable growth, bridging inequalities and reverting the climate emergency as the urgent need of the hour. 

Undoubtedly, China with its unrestrained ambitions to become the global leader will channelise its energies to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances. 

The accelerating process of globalisation and the interconnected world that was the poster child of the previous decades will have to be seen with a new perspective after the pandemic ends. The flagship project of China that promised it a step ahead in the direction of unrestrained command in international politics, has to be reevaluated completely. 

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