China’s Belt and Road Policy: The New Marshall Plan or New Imperialism?

MY ROAD :  FLAG OF CHINA

Photo via: Lain // Flickr

Article by Kerensa Gimre, JD 2020

China’s One Belt, One Road initiative will expend more than $1 trillion on infrastructure in more than 60 countries. The plan has been characterized as a new Marshall Plan, albeit on a much larger scale. China referred to the initiative as “globalization 2.0.” The program intends to propel Chinese and global economic growth. Critics claim the initiative does not originate in good faith and is instead aimed to make countries and companies more dependent on China.

Debt-Trap Diplomacy

China stands to make considerable economic and military gains from the initiative. As China offers resources to developing nations, China’s influence will grow and countries that depend on China will be less willing to criticize China’s human rights abuses or check the proliferation of the Chinese military. Accordingly, diplomacy will suffer and the likelihood of international conflicts will increase.

While these projects can be viewed as pioneering a new type of globalization or expanding China’s military, increasingly these projects can be viewed through the strategy of “debt-trap diplomacy,” where China aims to “gain influence overseas by bankrupting its partners and bending them to its will.” As an individual country grows, China can bankroll a country’s infrastructural needs, giving millions of dollars in loans, while simultaneously designing, constructing, operating, and benefitting from the planned infrastructure. China gains increased access to natural resources and increased access to vital ports, fortifying Chinese military outposts and networks.

Many of these loans are given to credit-poor countries who will never be able to repay China, essentially converting its economic loss into geopolitical gain. Debt crises as a result of Chinese expansion and infrastructure are imminent in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Pakistan. The former foreign minister of Australia stated that Laos and Cambodia are so indebted to China that they are now essentially “wholly owned subsidiaries of China.” As countries grow and expand their infrastructure, they are also turned into “new colonies” of China.

China’s Investment into Pakistan

This expansion of Chinese power holds severe consequences for the world’s military powers. In 2018, the Trump administration withheld more than $800 million in aid to Pakistan, in an effort to pressure the Pakistani government to cooperate with the US. Withholding the money to increase cooperation has likely backfired, since only two weeks after Trump announced he was withholding $300 million from Pakistan, China and Pakistan agreed to a confidential plan to increase Pakistani production of Chinese military jets and weaponry. This development is consistent with increased cooperation between China and Pakistan, while Pakistani relations with the US have soured.

Since 2013, China has spent more than $62 billion on projects in Pakistan, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is likely that the Pakistan projects, in particular, have both military and economic advantages for China. China can use Pakistan’s convenient ports on the Arabian Sea to bolster its naval outposts, as it increasingly confronts the US and India at sea.

As the US has reduced its aid to Pakistan, Pakistan has turned to China to build its infrastructure (including $46 billion in investment in electricity infrastructure) and supply the Pakistani government with needed funds. Even before the Belt and Road Initiative, Pakistan and China coordinated on the construction of a satellite network (to be launched in 2020) to replace the use of the American GPS network in the region. This move will significantly hamper the ability of US intelligence to monitor Chinese and other military activity in the region. Combined with China’s bolstered naval resources, this could lead to an increasing number of conflicts between the US, China, and India.

Human Rights Concerns

While the US retreats from the world stage, China is becoming a stronger leader, despite its problematic human rights abuses, state surveillance, and mass internment. Only two miles from where China plans to build the world’s “next Dubai” in Kazakhstan under the Belt and Road Initiative, China has incarcerated as many as 2 million people in more than 1,000 concentration camps. Benefitting from Chinese investment into its economy and infrastructure, Kazakhstan is in a poor position to challenge the human rights abuses happening just outside its borders. By failing to match Chinese investment in foreign countries, the US is losing influence abroad and is left unable to exert its influence on other countries to discourage China’s actions.

As developing nations sign over ports, infrastructure, and debt they will never be able to repay to China, few countries will be able to restrict China’s expansion of military power or challenge China’s human rights abuses. By financing much-needed infrastructure, including electricity and transportation networks, China has bolstered its reputation and political influence in many developing nations. Through its One Belt, One Road initiative, China’s debt trap-diplomacy can result in both unchecked power and increased international conflict.

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