Ten years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled an economic and infrastructure blueprint to promote connectivity and boost trade and development. To date, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has transformed and improved the lives of millions of people across more than 150 participating countries worldwide. On the BRI’s 10th anniversary, it’s perhaps fitting to retrace Xi’s thought process and the steps taken since its launch in 2013.
In the book series Xi Jinping: The Governance of China, the BRI occupies an important place. In the fourth volume of the book, Xi illustrates the importance of the BRI: “I have emphasised on various occasions that the BRI is a public road open to all, not a private path owned by one single party. All interested countries are welcome to take part in cooperation and share in its benefit. Belt and Road cooperation targets development and mutual benefits, and conveys a message of hope.”
After analysing the world’s economic challenges, various development paths, and future prospects, Xi concluded that the solution lies in strengthening “hard connectivity” in infrastructure, “soft connectivity” through harmonised rules and standards, and people-to-people ties.
With peace and development as the main BRI themes, and mutual benefit and respect as the anchor, Xi committed his country to working towards the following primary goals: Strengthening infrastructure connectivity and accelerating the construction of a better network that spans land, sea, cyberspace and air; expanding mutual political trust and strengthening policy coordination to guide and facilitate cooperation; strengthening financial connectivity and promoting unimpeded trade; balancing development and security, domestic and international imperatives, cooperation and competition to proactively meet challenges; ensuring that supply chains are smoothly connected with industrial chains; building synergy between mechanisms for security and the fight against international terrorism; and strengthening overall BRI planning and coordination.
If the current infrastructure and economic development in Africa and other regions are anything to go by, Xi has been vindicated. His key ideas have proven to be successful and are transforming and improving people’s lives in developing countries.
Look at a country like Tanzania, for instance. When the East African country signed the BRI agreement in 2018, the Tanzania-China trade stood at $3.8 billion. Four years later, in 2022, it had more than doubled to $8.3 billion.
Through collaborative efforts with Chinese enterprises, Tanzania upgraded the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Plant and Dar es Salaam Port, gained from technology transfer, and is building a new railway line. Chinese banks have financed all these projects. The same goes for countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
Africans view the BRI as a positive instrument that has boosted the continent’s infrastructure development. China is Africa’s main development and infrastructure financier, having invested more than $155 billion over the past 20 years. Most of these projects were interest-free loans or were financed at below-market interest rates.
Naturally, the US and its Western allies have been rattled by the BRI’s success. The US regards China as its major geopolitical competitor, and has implemented various measures to contain and stop its economic growth. In a panic mode, US President Joe Biden announced an alternative development and infrastructure initiative at the G20 Summit in India in September.
The G7 countries announced their own $600-billion Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment plan for the developing countries. In simple terms, the US initiative seeks to link India to Europe through the Arabian Peninsula, connect Zambia and Angola via the DRC, and help countries such as South Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Senegal to dump fossil fuel in favour of renewable energy.
Interestingly, anybody but China is welcome to participate in the G7 initiative. So successful has been China’s BRI that the West has spent sleepless nights over its fading geopolitical and geoeconomic influence over the past decade.
The West has used a carrot-and-stick method to win over some countries and punish others for participating in the BRI. Since 2019, the US Congress has approved billions of dollars for the Countering Chinese Influence Fund. The fund aims to counter Chinese influence in Africa and other parts of the world.
For a decade, the Western media published propaganda stories about the BRI being China’s geopolitical instrument to gain influence by “trapping developing nations into debt.” The fact that regions such as Africa and Asia are flush with modern infrastructure such as airports, roads and stadiums counts for nothing.
For instance, the Western media reported claims that Uganda had lost its only international airport, Entebbe International Airport, to China after falling into a so-called “BRI debt trap.” They further claimed that Uganda had tried unsuccessfully to renegotiate the terms for the loan to upgrade the country’s largest commercial and military airport. The Western media ran with the story despite Uganda and China denying it. The denial meant nothing. The story had to run because it fitted the narrative that China is “colonising” Africa through the BRI.
However, it later turned out that the story was false and based on unsubstantiated claims by an opposition politician. Instead of apologising and retracting, they simply published follow-up articles saying Uganda had been “forced” to deny that it lost an international airport. The Western media’s coverage of the BRI’s 10-year review in September followed the same script.
It is narrative-driven reporting based on ideology rather than objective reality and analysis.
It reflects the “us” and “them” mentality, the West versus the rest of the world mentality, and the so-called democracies versus authoritarian nations mentality. Those who resist the pressure of being loyal to Western narratives, especially on the BRI and Russia-Ukraine conflict, and refuse to parrot their reporting are isolated, labelled, and dismissed as Russian or Chinese agents. The extent to which the West has gone to counter BRI is a sign of China’s success.
In conclusion, I would like to quote Xi’s words in the fourth volume of Xi Jinping: The Governance of China. He said, “BRI cooperation has helped regions across the country to open wider to the world. More sectors have joined, and new progress has been made in opening up on the institutional level. We have made more friends across the world and found new paths of common development, realising mutual benefit with participating countries.”
Mahasha Rampedi is the Editor-in-Chief of African Times.