The New Silk Roads are just pieces in a giant puzzle


“Cranes tower above the first, 602-meter-long quay at the Gwadar port in Baluchistan on the southernmost tip of Pakistan last October. This is the site of what is supposed to become a giant trade port as part of China’s ‘New Silk Roads'”. PHOTO/AFP/ DPA

Vast Chinese infrastructure scheme is plagued by Sinophobia, damned as a ‘debt trap’ and tainted by corruption in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, yet these were faults inside these countries

The New Silk Roads, formerly One Belt One Road, then Belt and Road Initiative, were launched almost five years ago by President Xi Jinping, first in Astana (the Silk Road Economic Belt) and then in Jakarta (the Maritime Silk Road).

Way beyond the acronym purgatory – and the “lost in translation” factor that neither name sounds sexy in English – the fact is BRI will remain the organizing master concept of Chinese foreign policy for the foreseeable future, all the way to 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China).

It took Washington – under the Obama and Trump administrations – almost five years to come up with a response to BRI. And that is now essentially a trade war.

The response increasingly surfs a tsunami of Sinophobia dragging a detritus of malaise: corruption, pollution, real estate bubbles, ghost cities, and last but not least, a “road to nowhere” scheme (just like the BRICS emerging economies and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) relentlessly portrayed as an evil “scheme” destined to condemn unsuspecting poor countries to an endless debt trap and culminating in the takeover of their resources.

The Belt and Road is, additionally, dismissed as just a scheme to bypass the Strait of Malacca, through which transits 75% of Chinese exports and 80% of energy imports. In reality that happens to be only one among myriad vectors of the scheme.

The BRI hotel check-out policy

Let’s contrast BRI-bashing with three different dossiers: Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

The move by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad to suspend BRI-related projects – the $20-billion East Coast Rail Link and two pipelines worth over $2 billion – does not mean they are canceled. This is an economic recalculation.

Malaysia may be virtually bankrupt because of the Najib kleptocracy, but that has nothing to do with BRI. Mahathir, in fact, made it clear he wants to strengthen the partnership with China, and he’s in favor of the initiative. But first, he needs to balance the national budget. Kuala Lumpur will eventually be back in BRI mode.

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