Coronavirus and the BRI

The Corona Virus epidemic has shaken the world in numerous ways. The virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan (Hubei province), has led to the loss of over 12,000 lives globally. The three countries most impacted so far have been Italy (4,825 lives lost), China (3,287 lives lost), and Iran (1,500 lives lost) as of Saturday, March 21, 2020.

While there are reports that China is limping back to normalcy, the overall outlook for the economy is grim, to say the least, with some forecasts clearly predicting that even with aggressive stimulus measures China may not be able to attain 3% growth this year.

The Chinese slow down could have an impact on the country’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While China has been trying to send out a message that BRI will not be impacted excessively, the ground realities could be different given a number of factors.

One of the important, and more controversial, components of the BRI has been the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has often been cited as a clear indicator of ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’ (this, some analysts argue, is China’s way of increasing other country’s dependency on it, by providing loans for big ticket infrastructural projects, which ultimately lead to a rise in debts).

The US and multilateral organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have predictably questioned the project, but even in Pakistan many have questioned CPEC, including politicians, with most concerns revolving around its transparency and long-term economic implications. Yet the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) government, and the previous Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) government, have given the project immense importance, arguing that it would be a game changer for the South Asian nation.

On more than one occasion, Beijing has assured Pakistan that CPEC will go ahead as planned with China’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, stating on numerous occasions that the project will not be hit in spite of the Corona Virus. Senior officials in the Imran Khan government, including the Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in an interview with the Global Times, stated that while in the short run Corona may have an impact on CPEC, in the long run there would be no significant impact.

Analysts in Pakistan however, doubt that there will be no impact, given the fact that a large number of Chinese workers who had left Pakistan are unlikely to return. Since February 2020, a number of reports have been predicting that the CPEC project is likely to be impacted significantly.

Similarly, in the cases of other countries too, there are likely to be significant problems with regard to the resource crunch in China as well as the fact that Chinese workers cannot travel. Not only is Beijing not in a position to send workers, but countries hit by COVID-19 themselves will not be in a position to get the project back on track immediately, as they will first have to deal with the consequences of the outbreak.

Some BRI projects which had begun to slow down even before the outbreak spread globally were in Indonesia and Bangladesh. In Indonesia, a high speed rail project connecting Jakarta with Bandung (estimated at $6 billion) has slowed down since the beginning of the year, and ever since the onset of the Corona Virus, skilled Chinese personnel have been prevented from going back to Indonesia. Bangladesh too has announced delays on the Payra Coal power plant in February 2020. As casualties arising out of the virus increase in Indonesia and other parts of Asia and Africa, the first priority for countries is to prevent the spread of the virus.

While it is true that Beijing would want to send a clear message of keeping its commitments, matching up to its earlier targets is not likely to be a mean task. Even before the outbreak, there were issues due to the terms and conditions of the project and a number of projects had to be renegotiated due to pressure from local populations.

What China has managed to do successfully is provide assistance for dealing with COVID-19. In response to a request for assistance from the Italian government, China has sent a group of 300 doctors and corona virus testing kits and ventilators. The founder of Ali Baba and one of Asia’s richest men, Jack Ma, has also taken the lead in providing assistance to countries in need. After announcing that he will send 500,000 coronavirus testing kits and 1 million masks to the United States, Ma pledged to donate more than 1 million kits to Africa on Monday March 17, 2020, and on March 21, 2020, in a tweet, the Chinese billionaire said that he would be donating emergency supplies to a number of South Asian and South East Asian countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The emergency supplies include 1.8 million masks, 210,000 test kits, 36,000 protective suits and ventilators, and thermometers.

China is bothered not just about it’s own economic gains from the BRI, but is also concerned about the long term interests of countries which have signed up for BRI.

The Corona Virus has shaken the whole world, not just China, and the immediate priority of most countries is to control the spread of the pandemic and minimize the number of casualties. Countries dependent upon China, especially those which have joined the BRI, are likely to be impacted. What remains to be seen is the degree to which BRI is affected, and how developing countries which have put high stakes on BRI related projects respond.

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