China’s state-run Global Times newspaper declared in a column Tuesday that the future of world construction will be in China’s hands after the world embraces “One Belt, One Road,” (OBOR), the communist dictatorship’s sprawling infrastructure project threating to send the developing world into insurmountable debt.
OBOR primarily targets developing nations, seeking areas in countries in Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa lacking in transportation. China has pitched extravagant port, rail, and road projects to at least three continents with the alleged intention of rebuilding the “ancient silk road” and reconnecting Beijing to western Europe. Observers have grown wary of the plan, as many of the projects require countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, and Kenya to accept large loans from China that they may never be able to pay back. When the countries cannot make their payments, China takes over the infrastructure they have built.
The project has triggered a growing backlash in countries where China promised jobs and development, but instead has shipped in hundreds of Chinese workers and damaged the local economy. In Kenya, locals complain that Chinese workers have put together an “apartheid” system to keep Kenyans from eating in the same quarters, traveling on the same buses, or accepting high-skill jobs. In the south Pacific, island nations like Tonga are openly questioning whether they can trust China to keep to its borders given its colonization of parts of the South China Sea. In Malaysia, recently elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad canceled three OBOR projects, citing concerns that Malaysia does not have the money for such expenditures.
Chinese propaganda outlets are fighting back with claims that those who criticize the project are merely intimidated by the prospect of China and other countries taking on a larger global role and insisting that the project will result in China having near total control of global infrastructure, an admission that may do little to assuage concerns surrounding the project.
“In the future, BRI [Belt and Road Initiative, another name for the project] will be responsible for the majority of infrastructure projects worldwide,” the Global Times declared on Tuesday. “By generating benefits for those involved, a higher level of fairness will bloom.”
“Not to be confused with large-scale aid programs, the BRI is an assemblage of cooperative projects focused on communication, sharing and working collectively to achieve mutual benefits and a win-win result,” it continues, noting some “skepticism” surrounding China’s global ambitions. The article notes that 2018 marks the five-year anniversary of the announcement of OBOR and it claims “the accomplishments since then have shown the world otherwise and silenced skeptics.”
The defense of OBOR comes the week before the Communist Party’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, scheduled to occur in Beijing and showcase the benefits of cooperating with China. On Monday, the Global Times preemptively defended the forum from criticisms from the West, particularly the United States, for indebting African nations and spreading Chinese government influence to nations whose institutions cannot protect from the influence of a repressive communist regime.
“The West in the past took Africa as a place to plunder without any consideration of its infrastructure. It is now not able to provide what China is providing,” the Global Times scolded. “The West has no grounds for criticizing China’s model in Africa.”
The newspaper specified that criticism in the Financial Times triggered this response, which suggested that OBOR is a threat to the continental African economy. In response, the Global Times boasts that “China is the leading financier of infrastructure projects in Africa, averaging about annual $11.5 billion in investment over 2012-16” and China is working to fill “a void left by Western countries which sought to use aid to influence the domestic politics of African countries and extract political gains.”
Communist Party leader Xi Jinping personally addressed the controversy on Monday, asserting that OBOR enjoys great global support and that “jointly pursuing the BRI was not only aimed at economic cooperation but also an important pathway to improve global development patterns and global governance.”
Xi’s assertion that China hopes to “improve global … governance” appears to contradict the Global Times‘ repeated claims that China has no interest in influencing the internal politics of OBOR participants.
“The broad support for the BRI shows aspiration from countries involved, developing countries in particular, for peace and development,” Xi reportedly said. “It does not differentiate countries by ideology nor play the zero-sum game. As long as countries are willing to join, they are welcome.”
Malaysia’s withdrawal from OBOR has made the biggest impact on the project’s popularity globally so far, likely necessitating a response from Xi. Prime Minister Mohamad visited China last week to discuss trade; Chinese officials appeared to expect an expansion of OBOR projects, not limitations. Instead, Mohamad canceled three projects approved by predecessor Najib Razak and repeated complaints that Malaysian officials had been irresponsible with public funds. Reports suggest that Beijing is concerned that other OBOR nations are listening and reconsidering their commitments.
“There is a real danger of leaders of developing countries accepting substantial development loans for large projects that help themselves, their relatives and friends, rather than the people,” columnist Frank Ching writes in the Japan Times, in another nation China is trying to entice into the program. “Then when these leaders lose power, successor governments are stuck with the task of financing the loans.”