Beijing’s hosting of a massive forum for African leaders and business representatives next week will give Chinese President Xi Jinping a big opportunity to champion his Belt and Road Initiative, even as it faces pushback and criticism.
China launched its trillion-dollar global infrastructure and trade project five years ago, and the policy is now enshrined in the country’s constitution. The collision of both that anniversary and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation is providing Beijing with a choice opportunity to link to the two and bring the African continent more squarely under the belt and road umbrella, analysts said.
“At the forum there is certainly going to be lots of talk about the Belt and Road Initiative, and as it turns out one of the major places where China is trying to reinforce the Belt and Road Initiative is in Africa,” said Barry Sautman, a political science professor at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
So far, about nine countries on the continent have signed belt and road agreements with China and some 20 others are engaged in talks.
New loans, projects
During the forum, analysts expect a number of new loans and investment projects will be announced and that Beijing will address recent criticisms about debt traps, albeit indirectly.
The question of who is going to foot the bill is key when talking about China’s ambitious projects in Africa, and Beijing is likely to use the meeting to repackage its engagement with the continent, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“I think that China is aware of the criticisms that have come up in the past few months and it is going to reassure its African partners that it doesn’t want to put them into delicate financial situations,” he said.
Focus on Africa
Cabestan expects China will make Africa and the forum a key focus of a more adjusted Belt and Road Initiative going forward.
“Not only promising a lot of new projects and funding but also making the Belt and Road Initiative as well as the China-Africa cooperation more sustainable and more viable in the long run,” he said.
During the last forum, which was held in Johannesburg in 2015, China pledged about $60 billion in preferential loans and investment.
“I think this year actually China won’t put emphasis on quantity but rather on the quality of new projects,” said Tang Xiaoyang, deputy director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
Tang argues, however, that the adjustments China is making now are part of a more long-term concern about finances on the continent and not because of recent criticisms.
Malaysia backs out
A little more than a week ago, Malaysia announced it was canceling $20 billion worth in projects related to the global trade and infrastructure project. The country’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, voiced concern about belt and road projects strapping his country with too much debt and warned about the risks of a new version of colonialism.
Malaysia is not the first hurdle that the initiative has faced and is unlikely to be the last point of controversy.
For now, criticisms the belt and road have attracted elsewhere, be it Malaysia, Sri Lanka or Pakistan, have not risen to that same level of concern in Africa, said Dawn Murphy, an assistant professor of international security studies at the U.S. Air War College.
“There are concerns in various countries in Africa regarding the impact of Chinese contracts for infrastructure or Chinese investment, the impact that could have on local labor and various conditions within the country,” she said.
That is something that has been around for a while, she adds, but for a number of African countries, the initiative is seen as an opportunity.
“We’re at this point (now), where you put the label of belt and road on something, and it’s more likely to get financed, it’s more likely to have government attention, it’s more likely, you know, to be seen as an important initiative,” Murphy said.
For its part, China has been moving quickly to give assurances in the wake of Malaysia’s decision and ahead of the meeting.
President Xi has defended the initiative at a recent seminar to mark the five-year anniversary of the launch of the policy, arguing that its aim is not to create an exclusive China Club. He said the initiative was about economic cooperation and not a geopolitical or military alliance.
In a briefing this week ahead of the China Africa forum, Vice Minister Qian Keming said economic and trade cooperation with Africa is built on the principles of win-win and equality. Qian dismissed concerns about debt trap diplomacy, adding that there were no political strings attached to China’s economic cooperation with the continent.
According to Chinese officials, more than 30 heads of state and 700 African entrepreneurs are expected to attend the forum.