Has the Belt and Road Initiative become a political liability for China?
Alicia Garcia Herrero, Natixis Asia Pacific Chief Economist, Bruegel Senior Fellow;
Since President Xi Jingping announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in late 2013, shortly after his arrival to power, China has invested some $300 billion in it, mainly in connectivity among neighboring countries. While the project is only five years old, President Xi Jingping’s grand plan for China’s global expansion has elicited strong reactions from the rest of the world, both from countries that will benefit from the BRI as well as other major players, such as the United States and the European Union.
Over the five years since its announcement, the BRI has evolved in terms of its objectives: from its initial economic focus related to trade connectivity — and a way for China to export its excess capacity — to much more of a soft-power tool. A large number of the BRI’s infrastructure projects now appear to be strategic rather than economic in nature.
This change in tone is associated with the increasingly negative view of BRI in the West. The EU has expressed concerns about China’s strategic ambition at the annual EU-China summit in April 2019. Nonetheless, this has not stopped Italy from becoming the first G7 country to formally join the BRI. There also has been backlash in the developing world where recipients of BRI’s infrastructure projects are in desperate need of funding to pay off their borrowing.
A recent analysis that we conducted confirmed that sentiment toward the Belt and Road has indeed worsened in many countries. Our report, which drew data from the Global Database of Events, Language, Tone (GDELT) that covers broadcast, online and printed news from 132 countries in over 100 languages, shows a sharp move away from an average positive image before 2018 to a negative one thereafter. The only exceptions are the Middle East and North Africa. The worsening image of BRI is a wake-up call for China as it seeks to increase its soft power globally.
Our analysis offers some insights into the reasons for the worsening image of BRI. The first…