China’s ‘Belt and Road Power Play’ imperils democracy



The United States and China are in a competition to shape the course of the 21st century. At stake is whether the prevailing international order that has backstopped peace, prosperity, and freedom will endure, or whether Beijing’s emerging vision – a world defined by great power spheres of influence, rigged economic interactions, and ascendant authoritarianism – will become the global reality, according to Dr. Daniel Kliman and Abigail Grace.

To realize its vision, China is making multiple power plays, including what it calls “One Belt, One Road,” its newest initiative combining economic, diplomatic, military, and informational instruments of statecraft, they write in Power Play: Addressing China’s Belt and Road Strategy, a new report from the Center for a New American Security.

Many of the countries involved in the Belt and Road feature high levels of corruption and low levels of democracy, so the geopolitical dimension of the Belt and Road will further exacerbate such problems, they contend:

Hardly a champion of democracy and human rights, China has shown a willingness to defend authoritarian leaders in increasingly far-flung locations closely linked to its Belt and Road [the subject of a National Endowment for Democracy report]. The Maldives is a case in point, where Beijing supported President Abdulla Yameen after his declaration of a state of emergency and jailing of judges and opposition politicians… Countries taking Chinese investment under the Belt and Road run a high risk of governance declines, in part because many lack strong institutions, and because corruption and the resulting capture of elites can serve as a tool for Beijing to secure projects with strategic potential.

Kliman and Grace make several recommendations, including on governance and development:

  • Prepare to capitalize on moments of disillusionment with the Belt and Road.Focusing on countries hosting Belt and Road projects, the U.S. State Department should leverage artificial intelligence-powered sentiment analysis of local news and social media and American embassy reporting to create a database for use across the U.S. government that tracks mounting frustration with Chinese investment.
  • Foster political resiliency in countries targeted for Belt and Road investment.In nations potentially vulnerable to Chinese capture of their elites, the United States should bolster rule of law, transparency, accountability, freedom of the press, and civil society.
  • Enhance technical capacity in countries across the Indian Ocean rim and Eurasia. Partnering with India and the United Arab Emirates, the United States should establish an Infrastructure Center of Excellence in Dubai to train officials from the Middle East, Africa, and South and Central Asia. RTWT

As China’s roots in Africa deepen, Beijing increasingly faces accusations of burdening the continent with undue debt obligations, says analyst Jennifer Spies. China has changed the composition of African debt from primarily concessional financing (such as that of the International Monetary Fund) towards market-based debt with less favorable term, she writes for the Council on Foreign Relations:

Over the past five years, two-thirds of sub-Saharan African countries saw a 20 percent increase in debt-to-GDP ratios (though this rise is not necessarily attributable to Chinese loans). Eighteen countries including the Republic of Congo, Gambia, Zambia, and Mozambique are now classified by the World Bank as high risk for debt distress, a benchmark set by economists when debt-to-GDP ratios surpass 50 percent. In some countries, like Kenya, China is now the largest bilateral creditor

China at risk of becoming a colonialist power

China’s leaders and theoreticians would do well to study the history of British imperialism for evidence of how economic projects can lead to empire, says FT analyst Jamil Anderlini:

China is at risk of inadvertently embarking on its own colonial adventure in Pakistan— now virtually a client state of China. Many within the country worry openly that its reliance on Beijing is already turning it into a colony of its huge neighbour. The risks that the relationship could turn problematic are greatly increased by Beijing’s ignorance of how China is perceived abroad and its reluctance to study history through a non-ideological lens.

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