Why is ‘authoritarian’ BRI gaining traction against hybrid initiatives?

Through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has smartly picked up key sectors where it could invest its resources and expertise in infrastructure development and power generation to meet the critical requirements of the host countries while expanding its influence across the Global South.

Russia, per AidData, is by far the largest recipient of China’s investments ($125 billion), four-fifths of which has gone to 33 industry, mining and construction projects. With major global development spending in Venezuela ($91 billion), Angola ($52 billion), Brazil ($41 billion), Kazakhstan ($42 billion), Indonesia and Pakistan ($35 billion each), Iran ($17 billion) and Papua New Guinea ($6 billion), China has fortified its footprint from Africa, Central, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Oceania to Latin America and the Caribbean.

By the time the US realised forging an alliance of democratic countries as a counterweight to BRI, more than 100 countries had signed cooperation agreements with China. In fact, since launching the project in 2013 through commitment year 2017, Beijing had outspent Washington and other powers by a scale of 2-1, according to AidData.

As the US and the European Union retract from their values-driven Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) and Global Gateway (GG) to create space for states they historically criticised over human rights violations in the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC), it’s perhaps too late to carve the South away from China given that Beijing has made inroads into the problems of the developing world.

Compared to very few projects that have been materialised within the frameworks of the PGII and GG, characterised as “long on rhetoric but short on action”, the Chinese mega global development plan has built a sprawling network of bridges, roads, rails, ports and other infrastructure and undertaken several energy and social infrastructure projects in the South.

A desire to overhaul their connectivity and power infrastructure as well as to create jobs and foster economic growth accompanied by construction of hundreds of special economic zones tempted developing countries into committing themselves to the BRI, which in turn allowed China to develop lock-in relations with the Asian, African and Latin America and the Caribbean states both at public and government levels.

For instance, Beijing was projected to have commissioned 50GW of coal-fired power plants between 2013 and 2020 in those regions. For developing countries, struggling to attract investments in this critical sector, the Chinese investments provided them an opportunity to overwhelm their energy crisis and end years of blackouts. China’s more than $25 billion of electricity projects, adding over 8,000MW to Pakistan’s national grid, is one such example.

Of late, BRI has been instrumental in providing clean and green electricity to partner nations. China’s 720MW Karot Hydropower Project in Pakistan, 750MW Kafue Gorge Lower Hydropower Station in Zambia, 600-MW Karuma Hydropower Project in Uganda, 1.7 billion kilowatt-hours of solar power projects in Kazakhstan and raft of deals with South Africa to overhaul its creaky energy sector underscore why the BRI is set to be “greenest” this year.

Beijing’s approval of adding more than 50GW of new coal power in the first half of 2023 has drawn criticism. But China’s power generation isn’t entirely focused on fossil fuel energy generation as its renewable electricity production is increasing at a “staggering” pace too. This trend has been endorsed by researchers including BloombergNEF that expect China’s clean power installations to hit 154GW of solar and more than 64GW of onshore and offshore wind in 2023, beating its target of doubling solar and wind power to 1,200GW by 2025.

The Chinese companies spearheading several mass projects across continents are also establishing or upgrading other basic infrastructure systems such as schools, hospitals, stadiums, water and sanitation facilities and solid waste management systems in Asia and Africa, allowing China to present itself as a reliable partner of the South at the grassroots level.

A widening digital divide between developing and developed world and severely lagging internet-use in least-developing countries is threatening to exclude world’s poorest from next industrial revolution and leave them in technological wake, warned the UN recently. Aligning their countries with G-77 and China, representatives of several dozens of countries expressed concern about the challenge and the need to urgently close the gap.

The “aspiring cyber superpower” through the BRI technological arm, Digital Silk Road, is building or upgrading one of the most critical infrastructures, submarine cable network, in the Middle East and North Africa. The PEACE (Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe) fiber-optic cable in 2022 connected the cities of Karachi in Pakistan to Marseille in France. China is believed to have put in service or is currently laying such networks in 76 countries.

As the US boasts of countering an ‘authoritarian’ initiative with a democratic one, China continues to roll out projects and rally support from the developing world for its BRI and invoke empathy of the South people. This was evidenced by the third Belt and Road Forum that attracted several heads of states, mostly from the South.

By spending just one-eighth of what America spent in its wars on terror over the last 20 years, China has demonstrated its value to the South. With the West-led initiatives striving to establish their merit to the developing world and the BRI putting the North to test, the Chinese narrative of BRI as a centerpiece of global development seems to be winning.

Published in Other View , December 2nd, 2023.

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