Dr Sriparna Pathak, an academician and expert on China, South Asia and international relations, speaks to BeltnSilkRoad.com about the progress of the Belt and Road Projects and the potential upside for the countries partaking in the world’s largest infrastructure projects in size and scale 

Between the first and second Belt and Road Forum, what are the significant changes you see in China’s approach?
Between the first Belt and Road Forum, the BRI has achieved a little more concrete form. A lot more countries have also joined the initiative in the hopes of achieving benefits of infrastructural connectivity. What has also happened is that more countries have become wary of the possibilities of debt traps. So between the two BRI forums, we see countries like Malaysia and Myanmar renegotiated terms of agreements with Chinese companies, countries like Vietnam waiting for the outcomes of the first batch of BRI projects before deciding on more projects. Even African countries, an example of which is Sierra Leone have expressed worries over high project costs. All this has emerged as important changes between the two BRI forums.

Sustainable development was greatly discussed in the second belt and road forum. what brought in this change?
A lot of countries have been questioning the sustainability of BRI projects. In a lot of countries, it has been predicted that the BRI projected will have negative impacts on the host country’s domestic agriculture, fisheries and economy in general. Examples include Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
An example is the Kunming-Vientiane link which would eventually connect with a railway line to Bangkok, and southward along the Malay peninsula through to Singapore. The 414km link has stops along the way at the ancient capital Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng in Laos. However, it has been often looked at with suspicion as it is imagined that it will lead to environmental and social problems at Luang Prabang which is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Given the fact that the BRI is Xi Jinping’s dream project and is an extremely important strategic and important tool for China, it is pertinent that questions around sustainability be answered to reduce host countries’ fears. This is the reason why it emerged as an important theme of discussion during the second BRI forum.

As the silk route project moves ahead what are the challenges it is going to face in the coming days?
As the Silk Route moves forward, more problems of delays, high project costs, high-interest rates, questions over low technological content, usage of Chinese labourers over local labourers, widespread waste and fraud, the influx of Chinese tourists, fears of environmental degradation, destruction of local economies among others will become more frequent. All these complaints have already started emerging from ASEAN countries; there are reports of empty cargo trains on the BRI route between China and Europe, and there are increasing fears over China’s increasing political and economic clout. These are only going to increase as China moves ahead with the project.

Debt trap is a concern that has been expressed by many countries, especially by the critique of the project? How serious is that?
Debt Trap is a serious concern raised by a lot of countries post the handover of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. If we were to take the example of Cambodia for example, where fears of a debt trap are high, it is noted that the country owes USD 3 billion or nearly half of its foreign debt to China. It must pay back Chinese loans in addition to shelling out maintenance costs for Chinese financed infrastructure projects.

BRI is gradually taking concrete form: Sriparna

Myanmar also decided in August 2018, to scale back the initial US$7.3 billion price tag on the Kyauk Pyu deepwater port, on the western tip of Myanmar’s conflict-torn Rakhine state, due to debt fears. Bangladesh also terminated a plan to have a Chinese state-run firm to construct a 214 km highway from Dhaka to its northeast, As per reports, corruption by the state-backed Chinese Harbor Company, in addition to the price tag of USD 2 billion led to the cancellation from Bangladesh’s side. Thus, the fear of a debt trap does run high among countries across the globe from Asia to Africa.

Malaysia recently renegotiated a couple of stalled projects with China before granting go ahead. What were the reasons?
Post his election to leadership Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad wanted to cancel Chinese projects that had been granted by his predecessor- the USD 13 billion East Coast rail link in particular, which connects port Klang on the Straits of Malacca to Kota Bharu in the Northeastern peninsula of Malaysia. The fears were that China will benefit at Malaysia’s cost- as a neo-coloniser, through tools such as debt traps. In a visit to China, he had even warned of new colonialism, without naming China. In the run-up to Mahathir’s participation at the Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, frantic negotiations took place that led to the resumption of key projects like the East Coast Railway Line and Bandar Malaysia.

China is at trade war with the United States for more than a year now. is that anyway affecting belt and silk road initiative financially?
In the backdrop of the US slapping more and more tariffs on Chinese products, it becomes pertinent for China to complete BRI projects which will ensure it has connectivity to more markets which can absorb the Chinese products that were hitherto absorbed by the US. As the US-China trade conflict continues, China will need more investment and trading partners elsewhere. Emerging markets in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa will be the top choices for Beijing.

What should be the future road map for the initiative?
The future road map for the initiative should be more transparency, more commitment, fewer delays, less wastage, more concerns for the impact on local economies, addressing grievances of domestic populations of host countries to have a win-win cooperative framework through the BRI.