There is no greater show of China’s global ambitions than its Belt and Road initiative (BRI). Announced in 2013, the Belt and Road is the largest investment plan in human history. It promises over a trillion dollars in investment across the world, but more than that, the Belt and Road is meant to give birth to a new world, one that is integrated, interconnected, and globalized. But not like the globalized world of yesterday. This would be a world where all roads lead to Beijing.
The Belt and Road was already running into its fair share of problems before the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the world. Back in 2013, the Belt and Road made a lot of sense. The West was weakened by the 2008 financial crisis and China was becoming the center of the global economy. We appeared to be entering another golden age of globalization. Political shocks had challenged that system, but they did not break it. If the coronavirus does, then the conditions the Belt and Road needed for success may be lost forever.
How Did Countries First React to the Belt and Road Initiative?
The first condition that was needed was a pliable world. The Belt and Road may be led by China, but it is a multilateral project. China can only involve itself abroad to the extent that it is welcome. Over 70 countries have already signed up to the project, and hundreds of billions of dollars in investment have been realized from East Asia to East Africa. Ports, highways, bridges — the list is endless. But for as long as the Belt and Road has been in progress, resistance has also been building.
Malaysia was one of the first countries to sign up to the Belt and Road, agreeing to multiple projects worth well over $100 billion. But then, in the 2018 election, a new Prime Minister was elected on an outspokenly anti-China and anti-Belt and Road platform. Not long after, he canceled several Belt and Road projects, citing a need to reduce debt accrued by the previous government.
In Central Asia too, popular resentment against China has not been abated by the project. The Belt and Road was announced in Kazakhstan, and the country is essential to the Belt and Road’s land route, and yet locals are suspicious of the project and fear Chinese encroachment will hurt their country, not help it.
It is Difficult to See How China Can Emerge From This Crisis in a Favorable Light
And then the coronavirus arrived late last year. Instead of using its early recovery to build international goodwill, China is using it to sow discontent abroad and enhance its own prestige. Its confrontation with the US is growing, and elsewhere in Europe calls are increasing to treat China as an adversarial power. Former Portuguese Minister for Europe Bruno Maçães observed recently that he had “never seen so much anti-Chinese feeling in [his] life.” It is difficult to see how China can emerge from this crisis in a favorable light.
Another condition that was needed for a successful implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative was a globalizing world. The Belt and Road assumed that the world would become more globalized. There could not have been – and was not – a Belt and Road during the Cold War. It is only thanks to free trade, the free movement of goods and people, and open borders that the Belt and Road could be proposed. In other words, a liberal world order.
The Belt and Road May Find National Boundaries Aren’t As Flexible as Hoped
The Belt and Road was a perfect strategy to replace American dominance. It only required China’s favorite strategy – to quietly grow and wait. China saw enough revolution in the 20th century. Since Mao’s death, Beijing has instead worked within the system, adopting what works and abandoning what doesn’t, and the regime has not only survived – but thrived – because of it. But if that system fails to return, the Belt and Road may come up against the same national boundaries that have always blocked aspiring empires.
This gets us to one of the most important practical conditions for China’s ambitions to succeed – the free movement of labor. For the Belt and Road to function, China needs to be able to undercut competition for infrastructure projects abroad. How does it do that? By shipping in Chinese labor. Though local workers are used in some countries, these projects usually involve thousands of Chinese workers being brought in and paid low wages while living under strictly-controlled conditions.
With countries around the world outright banning foreign nationals amid a growing global economic recession — and with China calling its citizens home — who will be left to build these great projects? It is entirely possible that the world returns to normal once the pandemic has passed, but even in that timeline it would be well over a year – if not more before that happens. Even if this does not stop the Belt and Road, it will most certainly delay it.
If China faces a de-globalizing world hostile to its ambitions where Chinese labor and investment are met with unease and suspicion, the Belt and Road is dead. The coronavirus has proven yet again to the West that coexisting with China is difficult enough, let alone allowing Beijing to lead global affairs and dominate trade. So even presuming conditions return to normal and China can proceed with its signature endeavor, who’s to say the world will stand idly by and allow it?