Proposed by China in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an ongoing multi-billion dollar global infrastructure program that currently includes 71 economies across Eurasia. Though there is no official list of the participating countries, according to the World Bank, “In 2017, these economies received 35% of global foreign direct investments and accounted for 40% of global merchandise exports”. The intention of this project, according to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s original proposal, is to support the economic prosperity of the regions involved in the BRI by increasing their connectivity (on land and sea); fostering greater trade and policy cooperation; and advancing a shared vision of development among the participating countries. This Initiative has received mixed views from the rest of the world, with many developing countries in favour of it while Western countries remain skeptical. This piece will address the most prevalent of those different views on the BRI; convey Canada’s current perspective of the project; and address future economic policy avenues we can take.
"The common view of the BRI, from the Obama administration to today, is to be concerned about its growth, especially since skeptics in the West consider the BRI as part of China’s 'debt trap diplomacy'."
Firstly, it should be noted that states’ differing perspectives on the BRI are informed by their own geopolitical interests and concerns. Some countries may be more open to global collaboration and others, more protectionist; and there is certainly a divide between the East and the West, with the latter favouring a U.S.-championed liberal international order. The United States has consistently been the dominant opponent to the rise of China on the global stage. The common view of the BRI, from the Obama administration to today, is to be concerned about its growth, especially since skeptics in the West consider the BRI as part of China’s “debt trap diplomacy”. Debt trap diplomacy occurs when an economically powerful country—in this case, China—expands its influence over poorer, developing countries by luring them into deals where they borrow more than they can repay. In the context of the BRI, this means China would be able to force other countries to give up ownership of projects as collateral.
The Eastern view of the BRI, on the other hand, is in line with China’s desire to challenge the West’s individualistic worldview. It seeks to achieve this by cooperating with others on global initiatives such as the BRI, with a perspective of a shared future. Rather than focus on the debt, they look towards “liberating humankind from geographical, financial, political and cultural barriers”, according to Wenshan Jia, a professor at California’s Chapman University. Though there may be differing perspectives on the BRI, the project has still seen much support among developing states.
"Canada does not view the BRI as a threat yet; however, it is wary and skeptical of its advantages, believing it could undermine our own position in the geopolitical climate."
Canada’s view of the BRI is complicated . For the most part, Canada shares America’s skepticism, but also noticeably downplays the threat of the initiative. This downplaying seems to be a political decision, as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has already questioned the stated intention of the BRI in its monitoring of the Initiative. CSIS views the BRI in its geopolitical context, focusing beyond China’s official purposes to the point of reflecting on “Beijing’s vision for a new world order“. This new world order would be more focused on emerging powers within developing countries and would ultimately aid China’s interests through the strategic benefits of the BRI. Canada does not view the BRI as a threat yet; however, it is wary and skeptical of its advantages, believing it could undermine our own position in the geopolitical climate. Another interesting take on Canada’s view of the BRI is that we haven’t focused enough on its importance, and that this omission is consistent with our underestimation of China’s growing global influence. Some of those who believe we are not paying enough attention say that we may be missing out on the economic opportunities that the BRI could provide. Both of the views presented in combination portray a Canada who is both wary of the BRI (keeping it at arms-length) and not willing to focus on it.
Now, one must consider the economic options that Canada could take from here, even with our skepticism of the BRI. If Canada were to engage with the BRI, how could we do so in a way that transcended our current concerns regarding China (e.g., existing political tensions, human rights abuses, state-run corporations)? One option would be to look towards partnerships abroad on infrastructure projects, like the American company General Electric and the China Machinery Engineering Corporation partnering in Kipeto, Kenya to build a wind farm. Delegating to private companies that engage in infrastructure projects and new markets in developing countries rather than relying on intergovernmental collaboration could allow Canada to benefit from the economic aspect alone. Another economic option, and one which could account for the aforementioned tensions, would be to focus on an alternative, or counterweight, to the BRI that would support developing nations. In fact, Canada has already begun down this path. According to an article by The Globe and Mail, The US government’s Overseas Private Investment Corp, Canada’s FinDev, and the EU signed an agreement to “enhance co-operation and underscore their collective commitment to "providing a robust alternative to unsustainable state-led models”” . Canada has the opportunity to decide now which economic option would be better for our interests, and an alternative to the BRI would suffice.
"We should call on our government to convince other countries to join in putting pressure on China to act responsibly and committing to the infrastructure and sustainable development opportunities that the BRI offers if, and ONLY if, China is held accountable for its other actions."
So, now remains the question of what Canada should be doing, considering our relations and the constant struggle between championing human rights and economic prosperity. New concerns are constantly arising with the BRI as well as China’s military actions in the South China Sea and their persecution of Uighur Muslims (which is being increasingly accepted as genocide). With regards to the BRI project, the United Nations has actually recognized it as an aid to its sustainable development ambitions (so long as environmental and social standards are upheld) and praised its emphasis on international collaboration in 2017. There’s perhaps an opportunity for Canada to ensure that these remain the goals of the BRI. We should call on our government to convince other countries to join in putting pressure on China to act responsibly and committing to the infrastructure and sustainable development opportunities that the BRI offers if, and ONLY if, China is held accountable for its other actions. Global collaboration on such projects is always welcome, but if we have an opportunity to marry economic interests with championing human rights, we should do so. There are many views on the BRI beyond the scope of this piece, including many concerned with ensuring that workers and the global poor benefit from such initiatives and do not suffer human rights violations. Environmental concerns should be addressed too. All in all, though Canada should continue to be wary, we can continue proposing an alternative to the BRI. Even shaping it into a more inclusive project would be a welcome course of action.