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BRI - 10 years on, and Bangladesh

Simon Mohsin | November 21, 2023 00:00:00

People visit a booth during The Belt and Road Initiative in Bangladesh Exhibition 2023 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on September 8, 2023 —Xinhua Photo

China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been a pivotal force in infrastructure development for the developing world, especially the emerging economies. In September 2013, China's President Xi announced the One Belt and One Road Initiative (OBOR), which later became titled as the BRI. This year marks the 10th anniversary of this initiative that continues to be implemented across the world raising a multitude of discourses, both critical and positive, centred around it.

The BRI has emerged as one of the world's most ambitious and debated development initiatives. Of the over USD one trillion investment, a large portion of which is directed towards traditional infrastructure, including transport (e.g., roads, railways) and energy, is a key element of planning and implementing these emerging economies' growth and progress objectives. As of now, 148 countries have signed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with China regarding the BRI. These agreements indicate a desire to collaborate with China on the initiative's five pillars, which include investment, trade, and 'people-to-people' exchanges. Despite Italy's 2023 announcement to exit the BRI, most of Asia, Africa, and significant parts of Latin America remain steadfast in their support. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated earlier that the BRI would likely add $1 trillion in funding across the world between 2017 and 2027; the World Bank estimates that between 2013 and 2018 BRI investment including energy projects was about $575 billion. African countries praise the project, whereas countries like India and the US accused China of engaging in 'debt trap diplomacy' - aiming to own countries' assets if they are unable to repay the loans. Bangladesh has not been immune to this discussion as well.

As various organisations in Bangladesh continue discussing the merits and demerits of the BRI, the Centre for Alternatives recently held a similar event, where the issue of debt trap was discussed comprehensively. It must be concluded that the West-painted narrative of the Chinese debt trap has very different sources that the western influenced media would have one believe. Underscoring the fact that the term "debt trap" is a politically coined with origins arguably attributed to either Indian or US sources. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka (SL) is primed as the key example of Chinese debt trap, and the media discourse strengthens this narrative extensively. However, deeper, and objective analysis for the heavy foreign debt burden on SL was international capital market borrowing (mainly for infrastructure development) that began in earnest following the end of the civil was in SL. This type of borrowing accounted for about 47 per cent of the foreign debt that had strict repayment schedules. If WB and ADB borrowings are added, it accounts for about 69 per cent of SL's foreign borrowing. Internal policies, prime one to exacerbate the situation was agriculture policy of SL, weakened the SL situation further, drowning SL in a situation for which China was allegedly and incorrectly convicted of being responsible. Bangladesh is undergoing its own financial difficulties and mismanagement conundrums, but the Chinese investments are not seemingly the cause for it. Bangladesh's internal corruption nexus is likely the reason for unfathomable increase in the prices of the mega projects that China has funded, and of course, the Chinese counterparts are likely to have catalysed the corruption by encouraging it further. However, the way the BRI projects are funded does not seem like a debt trap. The policymakers, and the implementers' mismanagement of funds and project implementation may cause financial challenges in the mid to long run, but the BRI funding at its core does not promote any instability.

The five pillars of BRI that include policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people contact-building supplemented with the political commitment that a fund recipient country needs to have, all these structurally make the BRI pivot on stability. Added to the challenge of it being from China that causes geopolitical stress to the West and the US mainly, the investment recipients must have an internal stability, and the Chinese policy makers also need to base their funding decisions that afford stability to the host country. This is with the caveat that building infrastructure is never risk-free. Any large initiative like the BRI having thousands of infrastructure projects will have many failures as well as success stories. India, and later several others have pointed out issues concerning debt trap, lack of transparency and sustainability of BRI projects. The encouraging feature is China has modified some of its funding in Africa to include green financing, showing that China is open to adapt to the needs of the time.

In Bangladesh, Chinese investments, and its future investment commitments have certainly fostered economic growth towards its probable potential. The Chinese investments, as well as the US, South Korean, Russian, and other investments have certainly emboldened Bangladesh's economic growth and financial stability in the last decade. Of course, financial mismanagement and corruption in the process of implementing these projects and fund management is certainly a grave concern, but our own internal vulnerabilities are more culpable for these situations to occur.

Under the BRI, Bangladesh is to receive $26 billion and $14 billion for joint venture projects, totaling a $40 billion package. Bangladesh has primarily seen BRI projects in the energy and transportation sectors, with infrastructure investment needs projected to reach 1.5 per cent of GDP by 2040. Padma Bridge, Metrorail, Karnaphuli Tunnel have been the key feathers in China-Bangladesh bilateral engagement's success caps. The 12 highways and 21 bridge projects, symbolised by the Padma Multipurpose Bridge, serve as extensions of the modern-day 'Silk Road' within Bangladesh. From road to rail to seaport and airport, under-river tunnel to elevated expressway, water utility to e-governance, military, coal to solar energy, China makes its presence felt everywhere in Bangladesh with funds, technology, and expertise. In the last 10 years, China has released $4.45 billion for 35 projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), informs the Chinese Ambassador. Not only that, according to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a US think tank, the total investment from China in Bangladesh is $7.07 billion. In addition, Chinese companies have received construction contracts worth $22.94 billion in different sectors. These Chinese investments generate about 550,000 employments in Bangladesh. Given the trajectory, China is likely to surpass the US and become the largest investor in Bangladesh soon. This may raise several eyebrows in the Western bloc, and the media would have a field day, doing its usual war games exercise of analysing how this would translate into the ongoing US-China global competition, or global war as they would imply it.

However, the current world and the evolved globalisation underscores a different reality as the media machinery would have one perceive. Ideas such as de-coupling, aligning with one power over the other, and more are real, but their manifestation are less vivid and concerning as the media would have it. The India-China trade relations, the way US and other countries industries still depend on the Chinese manufacturing, this does not signify the dichotomous assessment that media, propagandists, and alarmists would have one believe. The mere fact is that globalisation has evolved from an interconnected information nexus, and marketplace to an interdependent production network. Each product is now made not only in place, or all its materials sourced from one place, rather a conglomeration of production mechanisms, and material sourcing from across multiple nations is a norm now. This situation creates interdependence among competing states and does not allow them to completely de-couple and disengage from each other. This simple realisation does not allow any country to look at things in the form of "either with us or against us." It was tried once in the early 2000s, and it failed miserably, as it did during the cold war. This realisation and central strategic point in Bangladesh's diplomacy and foreign affairs has allowed the country to maneuver the geopolitical challenges, successfully maintaining the country's foreign policy of friendship to all, malice to none. Bangladesh has successfully and boldly made everyone understand that "your enemy is your enemy, not mine; my friend may be your enemy, but it does not affect my friendship with you." Bangladesh has aptly maneuvered and avoided the dichotomy that many, especially the media would have made one believe that exists in the world.

We are now seen as a key participant not only in geoeconomics, but also geopolitics of this region, and the world. This has allowed Bangladesh the opportunity to become a key nexus of engagement, alignment, and adaptability between the Indo-Pacific Strategies of many, and the Chinese BRI. It should be noted that none of the IPS signify Bangladesh as a priority country; in fact, none of them even mention Bangladesh. However, the BRI does give importance to Bangladesh significantly. Thus, for Bangladesh to have greater focus on BRI not only for the importance of it renders to Bangladesh, but also the funds that it commits to Bangladesh, is nothing but logical.

Thus, Bangladesh should continue giving extra focus on any BRI projects underscoring the benefits, and how quickly and efficiently the repayment of loans can be made. There should a higher degree of 1.5 diplomatic engagements among the Chinese and Bangladesh intelligentia, and academia to forge better understanding of the BRI, and its projects in Bangladesh that will not only benefit Bangladesh, but the whole region, and especially India for its regional connectivity priorities. Making BRI projects more transparent, profitable, and leveraging on the strategic benefits of the projects in the long-run need to be the key focus.

Simon Mohsin is political and international affairs analyst.

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