Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) has entered its 10th year. On this occasion, China is preparing to hold the third international BRI conference—the first two were held in 2017 and 2019—by inviting world leaders to Beijing.
Over the past decade, BRI has generated several debates and controversies, mainly surrounding its investment terms and conditions. China is aware of the BRI’s reputation on international stage, so it is poised to make an amendment to its original plan and rebrand the program as the BRI 2.0, of which little is known about. Nepal became a BRI member in 2017, and China wants to create a positive public opinion on BRI here.
While Western countries have tried to sway Nepali leaders and policymakers by highlighting the debt issue of the BRI, Beijing is trying to override this narrative by portraying the program as a force of greater good, of development and prosperity.
Critics of BRI say it is a ‘debt trap’ lacking in transparency and that it ‘spoils the investment climate’ and contributes to cross-border corruption. Those in favor meanwhile are of the view that Nepal can exploit immense benefit from the program.
These two competing narratives regarding the BRI have paralyzed Nepali leaders. They see it as a tool to bridge the funding gap for infrastructure development as well as a potential debt trap. In essence, they have imprecise and superficial understanding of the program.
This could be because of a lack of effective communication between experts and leaders, and also
between the governments of Nepal and China. The Pokhara International Airport is a case in point. When Nepal objected to China’s listing of the airport under the BRI, there was no attempt at clarification from the Chinese side.
A senior Chinese official says: “Obviously, it is a BRI project and we are firm on it. But if Nepal says it is not under the BRI, that is okay for us too.”
This begs the question: What does BRI mean for Nepal? Or, more importantly: Is there a proper understanding in Nepal on BRI? Even after ten years, the Nepal government has not been able to make a concrete view and position on the program. A lot of confusion and ambiguity remains in the academic circle as well as in the government.
Chinese officials say there are five pillars of BRI: policy coordination, infrastructure, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and connecting people. But much of its focus in Nepal has been on the infrastructure component.
The fact is that China has invested billions in connectivity and energy projects mainly in the Global South, and mega projects have been built in many countries including high-speed railway. Of late, the BRI is gradually shifting towards soft power.
Ambar Malik, Chinese development finance expert, told Voice of America in an interview that the BRI is not a single entity, but rather an umbrella under which many entities are delivering projects in many countries across many sectors. “China has now also folded a lot of their cultural initiatives — their educational initiatives, scholarships, Confucius Institute and others — into this big juggernaut of the Belt and Road Initiative,” he said in the interview.
Chinese experts are of the view that the BRI faced challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic, geopolitical conflict and supply chain shocks, which needs to be settled for the coming decade.
In Nepal, as the BRI discussions are overly centered on infrastructure projects, it does not offer a full picture of the program. Some experts say discussions focused on infrastructure projects is one reason why the debt trap is finding purchase among the intelligentsia and the public.
The ‘debt trap’ argument could be the reason why former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress reportedly told the Chinese side that Nepal cannot take loan under the BRI.
The senior Chinese official that ApEx talked with says there are some flaws in Nepal on how to view BRI, which has created a misleading narrative.
Over the past few years, China has come up with three new initiatives— Global Security initiative (GSI), Global Development initiative (GDI) and Global Civilizational initiative (GCI)—which Chinese officials say fall under the BRI umbrella. The GDI is being implemented in coordination with the UN agencies while GCI is a new concept. As for the GSI, it necessitates an understanding between two countries before implementing any programs under it.
Some experts say these programs are Beijing’s way of recalibrating the BRI, which faced many hurdles in the past 10 years due to the commercially unviable projects, Covid-19 pandemic, economic crisis and climate change issues. Malik says the era of cheap money with low interest rates and large-scale megaprojects is likely over, hence the advent of BRI 2.0.
This could also be the reason why China is not forcing Nepal to select projects under the BRI, and repeatedly asking to come up with commercially viable projects that would help change the living standard of Nepalis. Experts say China will continue to invest in the infrastructure development of the Global South under the new version of the BRI.
According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, over the last decade, the BRI galvanized nearly $1 trillion in investments and established more than 3,000 new cooperative projects, creating 420,000 jobs for the countries and regions involved, and lifting approximately 40 million people out of poverty.
Nepal and China are working to conclude an implementation plan for the BRI. But unless Nepali leaders make a concrete view on it, the program cannot move ahead. There is also a need for consensus among major parties, so that the Nepal and China are on the same page.