Western nations are increasing global infrastructure cooperation in a bid to counter Beijing’s massive “New Silk Road” project, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
As allied democracies reassess their commitment to infrastructure investment plans, experts warn that their budgets are insignificant compared with Beijing’s global infrastructure spending.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has lavishly spent on international infrastructure during his time in power. This is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a policy enacted by Xi to transform China’s economy into a global superpower. The aim is to connect Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa through a network of roads, railways, and ports.
Xi’s investment in the BRI has been unparalleled in comparison to other nations’ spending efforts.
“For Xi, funding for the BRI has known almost no bounds as the logic is reversed: the more projects are financed, the greater the magnitude of the BRI, the more advantageous for Xi, the CCP and China,” Benjamin Barton, an expert in international relations with the politics department of The University of Nottingham, Malaysia, told The Epoch Times.
Beijing has outpaced Western alternatives in the infrastructure sector, and is now the dominant competitor in a low-competition market, Barton said. Its long-term investment strategy, he said, is to establish a strong foothold in the developing world.
The EU’s recently renewed development projects show that it still has a way to go before matching Beijing’s efforts, Barton noted.
Earlier this year, the EU pledged to re-launch the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) program, which seeks to connect Europe’s transport, telecommunications, and energy networks.
“The promise of 30 billion EUR across six years is impressive but it pales in comparison to some individual BRI projects alone,” Barton said.
Dollar figures put this disproportionate effort in context.
This was a fall from the previous year’s investments, which were estimated at 54 percent higher at roughly $73.79 billion. The estimated number of BRI investments in 2018 ranged between $1 trillion to $8 trillion.
In real dollar terms, Western infrastructure investments, even those in the trillions, are limited compared to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) lavish spending.
The West Focuses on Transparency and Green Building
Western alternatives to BRI have focused on transparent projects and green building plans.
This promised transparency is a bid to counter Beijing’s “debt-trap diplomacy.” BRI has drawn rising criticism in the West over its role in saddling developing countries with unsustainable debt burdens.
Meanwhile, the G7 has made sustainability a central focus of its initiative, a point of difference to Beijing, according to Mario Holzer, Executive Director at The Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies.
“This is not yet the focus of the BRI, which to a certain extent is also there to employ Chinese excess capacities,” Holzer told The Epoch Times.
As alternative alliances form, they are met with market challenges, especially those posed by Beijing’s dominant position in a highly competitive development market, according to Barton.
“Chinese infrastructure actors (SOEs [state-owned enterprises], policy banks, engineers, and laborers) sit atop of a very competitive business model, able to offer a complete package, relatively competitive financing (high on risk-taking and considerably low on requirements), rapid completion time, the expertise and cost-effective manpower to carry out projects,” Barton said.
He added that democracies provide less short-term convenience through the climate-friendly development model they advertise.
“Initiatives emanating from the West, in my view, do not carry as much clout because although they might be more sustainable, flat, and transparent, they often fail to meet the acute short-term demand in infrastructure markets in the Global South,” Barton said.
In the case of the EU’s CEF plan, Barton suggested that rather than directly challenging Beijing’s BRI, the EU could narrow its focus to a more restricted set of goals.
“Although it is still in the very early days and the exact terms of the CEF deserve a more detailed assessment, I doubt the decision-makers driving it foresaw it as a means to dovetail the BRI,” Barton said.
To some degree, allied democracies appear to be doing this already, billing their initiatives as clean alternatives to high-emissions projects sponsored by Beijing.
Meanwhile, Beijing appears to be responding to Western critiques by attempting to rebrand its BRI narrative.
For instance, in July the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) business school took out paid ads in The South China Morning Post emphasizing the need for the CCP to drive a positive narrative for BRI so it could win countries’ “hearts and minds.”
The authors of the sponsored content, business professors at HKUST, wrote that Beijing must “win the battle of narratives” by promoting the BRI as a benign initiative that benefits the whole world, not just China. “It must fashion a future that is open, accessible, and participative; one in which benefits are shared, not hoarded,” they wrote.