As the 3rd Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Summit unfoldsin China, it marks a decade since the inception of President Xi Jinping's flagship geoeconomic initiative. However, the composition of this summit is intriguing, with most countries sending ministers instead of heads of state. Even more concerning is the participation of a minister from the Afghan Taliban. While China continues to propagate BRI’s supposed progress over the years, its underlying objectives have garnered substantial criticism. These critiques include gaining strategic influence through developmental projects, leveraging assistance for basing and access rights, aggressively linking regions with Sino-centric value chains, inadequate attention to local needs, lack of transparency, disregard for sovereignty, adverse environmental impact, corruption, and insufficient financial oversight.
In response to mounting criticisms, President Xi Jinping has sought to modify China's approach to BRI, especially concerning environmental sustainability, referred to as "Green BRI." However, beneath this modified vocabulary lies a troubling strategy of duality, exemplified by the planned construction of the Gwadar coal-fired plant in Pakistan.
The shift towards a more environmentally conscious BRI began in 2019, with regulatory changes officially implemented in 2020 that emphasized adherence to international best practices in environmental risk management. Additionally, China announced in September 2021 its commitment to cease building new coal-fired power plants overseas. In November 2021, a new mantra for BRI emerged, advocating for "small and beautiful" (小儿美) projects. Christoph Nedophil Wang has posited an argument for this - that BRI projects should reduce wasteful investments and focus on smaller projects that are beautiful, or, alternatively “beautiful” (geo-)strategic projects, e.g., in ports and rail.
While these changes may appear to signify a commitment to clean and green principles, they ultimately undermine both China's and its partner countries' climate pledges. These shifts often serve as a mere facade, and recent evidence suggests that Beijing continues to exploit loopholes to further its strategic influence and aggressive pursuits.
As mentioned before, in 2021, Xi Jinping declared that China would not build any new coal-fired plants abroad, pledging increased support for low-carbon energy projects in developing nations. However, a recent revelation in 2023 exposed China's duality as Pakistan initiated the construction of a 300 MW coal-fired plant in Gwadar, a port city within the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), often seen as the main plank of BRI.
Funded by Chinese state-owned entities (SOEs) and powered by imported Chinese coal, the Gwadar plant is intended to supply energy to industries in the Gwadar Free Zone (GFZ). This move stirred controversy, as it directly contradicted China's 2021 UNGA pledge. Bao Zhong, political counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, defended the project's inclusion, stating it had been part of the CPEC framework since 2016.
However, this defense only highlights China's penchant for maintaining deliberate loopholes, ultimately favoring Beijing at the expense of its partner nations. Furthermore, concerns arise over the use of Chinese-imported coal rather than domestic resources, despite Pakistan's foreign exchange constraints. Pakistan had attempted to convinceChina to relocate the plant to Thar, where domestic coal was available, but to no avail.
China's actions in this regard underscore the true intentions behind the BRI - using it as a tool for gaining influence and geo-strategic advantages, often to the detriment of its partner countries. It is no coincidence that many nations have chosen to send ministers rather than heads of state to the 3rd BRI Summit currently underway, reflecting waning confidence in China's flagship project. Smaller, developing nations involved in the BRI must pay heed to this duality. Italy, for instance, is already exploring ways to distance itself from the initiative.
So, while China may tout a "Green BRI" and claim to prioritize smaller and more sustainable projects, a closer look reveals a strategy of duality that continues to raise concerns and undermine its partner nations. Developing nations involved in the BRI must carefully assess their involvement, and the international community must provide credible alternatives to ensure equitable and sustainable development in the geoeconomic landscape.
In this climate, the significance of the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC) and the role of India and its partners in offering an alternative to the BRI become increasingly evident. The international community must exercise vigilance and hold China accountable for its actions within the BRI framework. It is essential to ensure that infrastructure development projects align with sustainable and transparent practices while respecting the sovereignty and interests of the participating nations.