In China, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not only a fact of life, but also the embodiment of President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream.” Outside of China, expert and everyday audiences alike have never even heard of it — while the few who have tend to be skeptical, bordering on alarmist. This is because foreign media coverage of the BRI, although minimal, is overwhelmingly negative. “Debt trap,” “neocolonial,” and “corrupt” are among the pejoratives that most often appear in overseas publications (particularly in the West).
The BRI was launched in the autumn of 2013. After nearly six years, a majority of BRI projects (namely in critical infrastructure) continue to be financed and executed by Chinese entities. This is because many BRI mechanisms — ranging from diplomacy, to lending, to procurement — remain shrouded in secrecy. As a result, host-country communities are growing increasingly ambivalent, while third-country governments and industries are starting to feel threatened. The ongoing backlash toward Huawei and its nascent 5G network in Europe and North America is the most recent and visible manifestation of these mounting tensions.
Accordingly, in order to improve trust, China has been attempting to assuage the above-mentioned issues. Chinese enterprises along the Belt and Road are now hiring more locally, as well as beginning to embed corporate social responsibility into their operations. In fact, just days ago, Huawei unveiled a Cybersecurity Transparency Center in Brussels as a good-faith overture to Belgium and the European Union. Such steps are helpful, but further measures are still necessary.
To this end, Chinese entities should fully and openly engage with international organizations and institutions (especially those within the United Nations system, as per the 2030 Agenda). Doing so will facilitate meaningful dialogues, which will empower BRI stakeholders and interested parties to build solid foundations for future cooperation. Said dialogues also represent valuable opportunities to educate global audiences about the BRI, and then invite them to participate in it. If China multilateralizes (and thus demystifies) the BRI, then President Xi’s signature strategy will truly be a “win-win” for every country, company, and community involved.
Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (both jointly and individually) have been pitching their own, albeit smaller-scale, development visions to emerging markets. Additional plans and pledges from these and other nations are likely forthcoming. Multilateralizing the BRI will offset some, but not all, of this competition. However, China should not worry. This is because competition encourages innovation, creativity, sustainability, better practices, and higher standards — across the board. Free and fair competition between the BRI and its counterparts will result in an exciting race to the top. No one country can lose. Rather, our whole world will be the winner.
(The author is a Lisbon-based Belt and Road researcher who previously lived in Shenzhen.)