Wed, 23 Jun 2021

Since it was announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has channeled hundreds of billions of dollars into foreign infrastructure, boosting trade, and clearing the way for China to forge political and economic links around the world.

The massive undertaking -- which Xi dubbed "the project of the century" -- has become a pillar of Chinese foreign policy and a strategic tool for Beijing as it has deepened its partnerships and boosted its influence in the process.

The BRI has since been supported by international organizations and more than 150 countries -- including many in the West -- as it has expanded in scope from ports, pipelines, and roads to include digital technology, health care, and green energy.

But a combination of growing disillusionment among partner countries with the resulting projects, room for more investment, and increased unease about the strategic implications of the BRI might have opened the door for an alternative to emerge.

Ahead of June's Group of Seven (G7) summit in the United Kingdom, U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson setting up a Western-led infrastructure plan that would rival China's flagship BRI.

"There is a real opportunity right now. The sheer global need for investment in infrastructure far exceeds the ability of any country to meet it," Jonathan Hillman, the director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told RFE/RL. "Even the most exaggerated estimates of BRI will not meet the world's needs."

China will feature prominently on the agenda of the June 11-13 summit, which will bring together the traditional group of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, and the United States, plus representatives from Australia, India, and South Korea.

Forming an alternative to the BRI may come into sharper focus as Biden presses ahead with plans to establish an alliance of democracies to counterbalance China's growing influence.

Biden said in March that he would prevent China from passing the United States to become the 'most powerful country in the world,' and his administration has outlined plans to boost collaboration with its allies.

The European Union and India already inked a connectivity partnership on May 8 that aims to increase cooperation on digital and hard infrastructure, with an emphasis on strengthening regulatory standards on emerging technologies.

U.S. President Joe Biden says that he will not allow China to surpass the United States during his first formal news conference as president in the East Room of the White House in Washington on March 25.

Hillman said the timing is right for advanced economies to offer alternatives to the BRI that can focus on providing more transparency for higher-quality projects across the developing world.

With their combined resources and a growing convergence among allies on how to approach development, especially Brussels and Washington, Western infrastructure plans could receive a boost that they've recently lacked.

"The United States is now much more aligned with its European partners when it comes to environmental issues, and that creates more opportunity for collaboration," said Hillman. "There is a heft and confidence behind these talks that wasn't there before."

A Window Of Opportunity

The current push comes as the developing world struggles with the economic pressures brought by the pandemic and as the BRI brand has been tarnished by controversy.

The World Bank has said that COVID-19 will plunge the world economy into the worst recession since World War II and the world's infrastructure needs -- estimated at $94 trillion over the next two decades -- are still unmet.

The BRI has also been undercut in recent years with questions regarding the commercial value of many of its projects, growing debt worries over murky lending practices, and concerns over the initiative being a vehicle for Chinese control.

Montenegro asked the European Union in April for help repaying a $1 billion Chinese loan for an ongoing highway project in that small Balkan country.

Debt and transparency concerns also surfaced in May as Hungary announced a $1.5 billion loan to build a Chinese university. This followed a controversial move by the government in April 2020 to keep all details classified around $1.9 billion borrowed from China for a railway project connecting Budapest to Belgrade.

Wider aspersions have been cast on the terms of deals for BRI projects, which a recent study of 100 Chinese contracts by the Center for Global Development found contained uniquely restrictive secrecy requirements and clauses that could allow Chinese entities to influence the policies of debtor countries.

WATCH: Plans For Chinese University In Hungary Prompt Concerns Over Influence

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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