From words to action: the road ahead for the Belt and Road

3 May 2019 Ilya Jones and Tang Xiaomin From words to action: the road ahead for the Belt and Road

The Belt and Road Forum, which took place in Beijing in late April, brought together world leaders to discuss how the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can bring opportunities and growth. Despite encouraging language from the summit, the initiative can do more to address scepticism and to ensure community voices are heard.

“The Belt and Road is not an exclusive club,” proclaimed China’s President Xi Jinping at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF). “We need to take a people-centred approach and give priority to poverty alleviation and job creation to see that the joint pursuit of Belt and Road cooperation will deliver true benefits to the people of participating countries.”

In his speech to the assembled leaders and representatives, President Xi sought to emphasise collaboration and address some of the reservations held by many since the launch of the massive economic and development plan in 2013. He stressed the ‘win-win’ aspects of the initiative and the importance of multilateral cooperation, consultation and transparency. “We will adopt widely accepted rules and standards and encourage participating companies to follow general international rules and standards,” he said. He also pledged a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards corruption – a growing concern given some of the opaque deals that have fallen under the BRI umbrella. “With the involvement of multiple stakeholders, we can surely deliver benefits to all.”

President Xi rightly pointed to the great need for infrastructure investments in many parts of the world. McKinsey, a consulting firm, estimates that $3.7 trillion of investment in economic infrastructure alone is needed every year from now until 2035 to keep pace with growth. Much of this will be needed in China’s near-neighbourhood in south east and central Asia, and further afield in Africa and Latin America. Such investments can have benefits in the short-term through increased demand for goods and services, and in the long-term by reducing costs and bolstering growth.

But the BRI has had a rocky start. Several of its investments have been mired in controversy, with accusations that China has used the initiative as a foreign policy tool to gain influence and trap countries into high-debt projects they can’t afford. Some projects, such as a power plant in Vietnam or a port in Sri Lanka have been met with resistance from communities who feel excluded or that these investments harm the environment or their livelihoods. Others have been delayed or cancelled. As we mentioned in our previous blog, communities in host countries – especially those that have historically faced many challenges around corruption and lost livelihoods – worry that such investments will do little to benefit them while lining the pockets of elites.

All of these factors can potentially drive conflict in many already-fragile contexts along the BRI. If people see these projects as feeding corruption, harming the environment, disrupting livelihoods, displacing populations or benefiting certain groups of people over others, tensions could bubble over into violence and instability.

What came out of the latest summit?

The rhetoric from the latest BRF was largely positive, showing that the Chinese leadership heard some of the criticisms levelled against the BRI. In their joint communique, leaders from 40 countries and international organisations emphasised a shift toward more sustainable, economically viable and high-quality investments (as opposed to high-speed ones), and indicated new directions for driving the initiative forward. In line with the constructive language around a ‘people-centred approach’, the communique mentioned the promotion of peace and development, and improving quality of life for citizens.

It stressed the importance of global interconnectivity and cooperation around the BRI – not just economic but also cultural and people-to-people exchanges. An initiative worth mentioning is the Silk Road Community Building Initiative, which aims to facilitate cultural exchanges and strengthen cooperation between civil society groups and non-governmental organisations for development projects along the BRI. Another welcome aspect was the central role given to consultation with as wide a range of interested groups as possible, and to building multilateral partnerships. This includes national and international financial institutions, the private sector (including small and medium-sized enterprises) and international organisations, as well as public-private partnerships. With its ‘people-centred’ focus, consultations with communities and civil society groups should be ramped up as well.

A third area of focus was the role of international frameworks such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate action, as well as compliance with international norms and standards. The communique emphasised the importance of transparency and cooperation in disaster-risk reduction, anti-corruption and financing. One example of this is a recent agreement between Chinese government agencies and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation for promoting international standards for small hydroelectric power plants.

If the rhetoric of the summit is put into practice and the BRI becomes a truly inclusive and people-centred initiative – with rigorous assessments of what impacts its investments could have on local environments and people, and with consultations to ensure the benefits are widely felt – it has the potential to play a large role in contributing to development and even to more peaceful and prosperous societies.

Towards a more inclusive and transparent BRI

The second BRF brought together the elites of countries who jointly agreed on the principles underlining the initiative – but this conversation also needs to be extended to those who can speak for people directly affected. If China and other participating countries want to ensure BRI investments and projects are accepted and truly sustainable, there needs to be a strong effort to comply with international standards and to consult with people and civil society working in affected areas, who have the best understanding of any given context and can advise on how projects might benefit or harm communities. A good starting point would be engaging with experienced institutions to better understand international standards, follow best practices, and to set up conversations with communities and civil society – whether at global summits or in project locations.

Several documents have been published recently in an attempt to guide Chinese enterprises to adopt responsible business models and set up internal compliance programmes. For example, the ‘Guidelines for Corporate Overseas Compliance Management,’ published in December of last year, helps companies navigate four major areas such as foreign trade, overseas investment, foreign contracted projects and overseas daily operations. Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce continues to update its guidelines, including chapters on relationship building and cooperation with national entities and affected communities. Such guidelines can help with smart investments in human and financial resources in host communities and in support of public services and social projects. Through increased consultations with international and local organisations, these guidelines should continue to be refined to ensure that they reflect diverse experiences and ideas – helping improve chances that investments are truly beneficial to the people living in affected areas.

Businesses, from China or elsewhere, can also form partnerships with peacebuilders and organisations who specialise in advising businesses so that they are sensitive to varied and complex conflict dynamics. Saferworld has worked with Chinese companies in the past – for example, in South Sudan and Kenya – and also with European institutions such as the European Investment Bank to help them avoid the risk that their investments increase existing tensions or inequalities and maximise their contribution to sustainable development and lasting peace.

It is with this knowledge and understanding that Chinese and other international actors from public and private sectors working under the BRI will be better able to live up to the BRI’s promise of ‘win-win’ benefits for all.

Photo: Recon Asia/Flickr