Development and connectivity are often regarded as important features of a society in the present age of globalization. Development should not refer only to economic growth in terms of value of goods and services produced, measured by Gross Domestic Product, but must lead as well to improvement in human welfare, quality of life, and social well being, taking into consideration the needs of the future generations. In an era of globalization, communication, exchange and connection among different places at various levels are inevitable and necessary. Transnational activities, whether economic or social, can bring mutual benefits, if these activities are not equal and respectful ways.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a new global program that has potential to bring about human development and interconnection, if it is conducted in a right direction. According to the Chinese government, BRI is a multifaceted economic, diplomatic and geopolitical undertaking, creating a web of infrastructure, including roads, railways, telecommunications, energy pipelines, and ports, as well as education and real estate. It claims that BRI would serve to enhance economic interconnectivity of over 63% of the world’s population and facilitate development across Eurasia, East Africa and more than 65 partner countries. BRI has two primary components: the overland Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), and the sea-based 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Together, they form the “belt” and “road”.
China emphasizes the co-operative nature of the initiative and its objective of “win-win outcomes”. In his address to the Belt and Road Forum for International Co-operation in Beijing in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping, described the BRI in terms of “peace and co-operation”, “openness and inclusiveness”, “mutual learning”, and “mutual benefit”. The strategy is designed to stimulate corporate partnerships within the Belt & Road countries, leading to increased international collaboration.
However, behind this rhetoric of harmony and mutuality, some analysts point out that the underlying agenda is to foster an emerging China-led operating system for the international economy, with an intention to assume a more prominent global leadership role through the BRI, acting as the development vehicle or the hardware of trade and investment.
In fact, in December 2017, speaking to representatives of nearly 300 overseas political groups in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the Communist Party would proactively push forward the construction of a global network of partners and will proactively push for political solutions for international hot issues and difficult problems. The intention to be a global leader is obvious.
With the rapid expansion of the scale, sectors and destinations of Chinese investment abroad, controversy has also been growing over its social impact on host countries, especially those which are unable to regulate the foreign firms. In the past, Chinese firms investing in these countries have been accused of engaging in poor labour, safety and environmental practices, bribing government officials and violating human rights. The undesirable results for China’s image have prompted Beijing to introduce regulations, guidelines and policies to govern the conduct of Chinese firms investing abroad. The conduct of Chinese state-owned enterprises and private firms investing along the Belt and Road must be subjected to international scrutiny.
In Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), Pope Paul VI stated that “development involves building a human community where human persons can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality, free from servitude to other men or to natural forces which they cannot yet control satisfactorily. It involves building a human community where liberty is not an idle word, where the needy Lazarus can sit down with the rich man at the same banquet table. (#47)” This is a new humanism in which people are treated with dignity – can enjoy the higher values of love and friendship, of prayer and contemplation. This is what will guarantee authentic development— transition from less than human conditions to truly human ones. (#20)
With the Belt and Road initiative, China is pursuing a new development strategy that will broaden its role in global markets and production networks as well as its potential geopolitical influence. Whether China can set a new ethical standard that will shape the governance of labour, safety and environmental standards on a global scale is an imperative issue. Or will the Chinese firms or state-run enterprises maintain a low standard in countries that have weak governance?
Through the BIR, China is well-placed to be the dominant player in facilitating the transition and roll-out of green and renewable energy infrastructure across Eurasia. This is especially so since the Trump administration has ceded American influence in international climate politics. However, some critics also query whether China brings in clean energy or problematic energy (such as nuclear power) to the developing countries.
Recently, in December 2017, there is news about Sri Lanka formally handing over the strategic port of Hambantota (on the belt and road route) to China on a 99-year lease when the new government struggled to pay its debt inherited from the former government to China. Some critics said such act threatens the country’s sovereignty. Moreover, in May 2018, the newly elected Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Malaysia would talk to the Chinese government about renegotiating what he called “unequal treaties,” including a Chinese company-led $14 billion East Coast rail project in peninsular Malaysia.
All these news alert us whether the relationship between China and other countries can be built on an equal base and directed toward solidarity and authentic development through BRI. Hope BRI can really contribute to authentic human development and interconnectedness among various countries at a global level.