Don’t dismiss the BRI

Photo: Anthony Moretti, 27May2017

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) recently released a report suggesting China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) does far more harm than good for the countries participating in it. Stoking fears about China, the document seeks to warn these nations that China is not their friend.

In the foreword to the report, readers are told the BRI “worryingly adds to countries’ debt burdens, locks countries into carbon-intensive futures, tilts the playing field in major markets toward Chinese companies, and draws countries into tighter economic and political relationships with Beijing.”

The CFR document argues China is acting in its own interests as it boasts about the BRI’s purpose.

These assertions don’t hold up to scrutiny. Consider a recent interview involving Andrey Denisov, who is Russia’s ambassador to China. He described the BRI as “an open initiative” in which all participating nations are considered “family.” Dhia Khaled is Tunisia’s ambassador to China. He said his country was among the first to sign onto the BRI because it “extends across many fields, including infrastructure, science and technology, culture, trade, tourism, non-governmental exchanges and finance.”

These are just two examples recognizing the rich and lasting partnerships that will develop with the BRI because of the breadth of its opportunities. An even cursory search of non-Western media will quickly identify multiple comments from individuals in governmental and private sectors that affirm all participating nations benefit from the BRI. Such positive statements are absent in the many Western media agencies hostile to the BRI and to China.

The executive summary of the CFR report states China has financed “everything from power plants, railways, highways, and ports to telecommunications infrastructure, fiber-optic cables, and smart cities around the world.” These words appear to be complimentary; however, they come in the context of demanding the public be aware that China has expanded the BRI exceeding the original plan.

CFR’s document identifies multiple areas in which China is accused of using the BRI “in worrying ways.” Beijing is charged with
-undermining global macroeconomic stability;
-prioritizing Chinese companies at the expense of an honest and open bidding process for contracts;
-damaging the environment through exporting coal-fired power plants; and
-establishing a framework allowing for the Chinese government to apply political pressure on other governments around the world.

In short, China is eager to use its economic and technological power across the globe, but the BRI “was never a straightforward altruistic endeavor,” according to the report. This statement appears to criticize the roughly 140 countries, 17 of which belong to the European Union, around the world that have endorsed the BRI. They come from all parts of the globe and include nations as disparate as Angola, Bolivia, Russia and Singapore, and they’ve articulated strong support for the initiative.

Huawei is identified numerous times in the report as a conduit for advancing China’s interests under the guise of making 5G available around the world. The company, which celebrates its 35th anniversary next year, is continually characterized by the U.S. and its allies as a tool of the Chinese government. But there is scant acknowledgment in the CFR report that Huawei has a rich history working with Britain’s equivalent of America’s National Security Agency and with some of the world’s largest telecommunications companies. We also must not forget that many of Washington’s closest allies have rejected demands that it stop purchasing Huawei equipment.

The authors of the report admit that in areas such as climate change and health diplomacy Beijing and Washington can cooperate in the near future. However, the few positive comments about China-as-ally are subsumed by multiple questionable claims of China-as-enemy.

The BRI has been vetted and supported by close to 70 percent of the countries recognized by the United Nations. That might be the only necessary to validate its integrity.

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