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.

China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the limits of ‘Cheque Book Diplomacy’

On September 9, 2018 Myanmar and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for establishing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), as part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The corridor will traverse a distance of approximately 1700 kilometres and seeks to connect Kunming (in China’s Yunnan Province) with Myanmar’s key economic points – Mandalay, Yangon, and Kyauphkyu.

According to the MOU, both sides have agreed to collaborate in a number of areas. Some of the important areas identified for collaboration by both countries are: infrastructure, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, transport, finance, human resources development, telecommunications, and research and technology.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had first announced the proposal to build CMEC during his meeting with Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2017. The MOU had been finalized in February 2018.

The CMEC is an ambitious project from which Myanmar could benefit immensely. Yet, there have been apprehensions with regard to the economic feasibility of the project, and Myanmar does not want to meet the fate of other countries which have fallen into what has been dubbed as a ‘Debt Trap’.

Opposition to Kyauphkyu

There has been skepticism with regard to the BRI project in general, and China’s involvement in the SEZ and Sea Port to be set up in Kyauphkyu (a coastal town in the Rakhine Province) in particular. Large sections of the population have been questioning the economic rationale of the project – and the benefits for Myanmar. CITIC (China’s biggest financial conglomerate) was awarded both projects, but it had to reduce its stake from 85 percent to 70 percent in the Sea Port after vehement opposition from the local population. Locals found the 85-15 arrangement unreasonable. Fearing a debt trap, the NLD government in Myanmar has also reduced the initial value of the Sea Port project – a whopping $7.3 billion USD to $1.3 billion. There has been opposition to the SEZ as well (mainly on environmental grounds), and while the initial Chinese take in the SEZ (originally valued at $2.7 billion) was 51 percent, it is likely to be revised.

U Kan Zaw, a Minister in the erstwhile Than Sein government (and Chairman of the Kyauphkyu SEZ tender committee), confessed that Myanmar was not very keen for Chinese investment (it had sought investments from the UK and Europe), but it was not left with any other option once other countries declined to invest.

China beginning to acknowledge shortcomings of BRI projects

Of late Beijing has expressed a willingness to re-examine some aspects of BRI-related projects (including CMEC and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – CPEC). On the face of it, at least Beijing seems open to addressing the worries of countries which are part of the BRI.

Chinese media itself is trying to send a message that Beijing is responsive to concerns of countries which are part of the BRI initiative. A recent example is an article in CGTN on CMEC, which acknowledged not just the drawbacks of the project, but also the fact that the response to CMEC has been tepid so far in Myanmar. Said the article:

CMEC is temporarily suffering from a cold reception, we believe that it is an excellent endeavor.

The authors of the article also makes a significant point: that Chinese businessmen are not familiar with Myanmar. While the article could be referring to the lack of familiarity with Myanmar’s policies, many host countries have been critical not just of the ‘one sided’ nature of Chinese economic investments, but their unwillingness to understand local cultures, and the fact that they remain aloof from the local population.

On a number of occasions, Chinese businessmen have even misbehaved with locals. In Pakistan, on two occasions, Chinese businessmen have beaten up policeman, and this did not go down well with the local population.

While alluding to the failure of big ticket infrastructure projects, the article also refers to the need for Chinese investments in ‘light industry’ as opposed to ‘heavy industry’ (in a reference to infrastructural mega projects, such as those which were scrapped by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad).

One of the interesting aspects of CMEC is that Myanmar was keen to have third party investments, and not restrict itself only to Chinese investments. Investments will come from countries in South East Asia and East Asia — Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. While China’s economic presence in Myanmar is staggering, this has not gone unchallenged and of late countries like South Korea are also increasing their presence in Myanmar. The authors of the CGTN article also try to pitch for Chinese cooperation with other countries, arguing that joint investments will mean not only lesser economic and political burden for China, but that they could also reduce hostilities between Western and Chinese companies.

Finally, the article speaks about the need for greater cooperation between Myanmar and China in the sphere of agriculture (especially aquaculture), and that this cooperation should be economically beneficial for the local population.

Conclusion

It remains to be seen whether China will actually acknowledge the genuine concerns of countries participating in the BRI, and whether or not it will actually take some tangible steps to address the apprehensions. As stated earlier, Beijing seems slightly more flexible in its negotiations, but whether this is a short term trend (which many would argue is a consequence of Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad’s straight talking with China) or not remains to be seen.

China may be further compelled to change its approach towards overseas economic investments after the recent electoral rout of Abdulla Yameen (outgoing Maldivian President), considered to be pro-China. One trend which is clearly emerging, as was evident from the electoral verdict of Maldives, was that leaders (many of whom position themselves as strongmen) blindly following Chinese diktats for short term economic goals does not go down well with ordinary citizens, and China may need to address its perception problem by looking beyond Cheque book Diplomacy.