1 November 2023

10 Years of China’s BRI and Not Enough Leadership from India

It should be easy for the world to criticise China’s its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that has completed 10 years of operation. Consider its record, for one. Several countries have realised the Chinese often promised a lot more than they delivered while yet others – Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in particular in India’s neighbourhood – also realised that Chinese gifts came with heavy costs. 

Pakistan has been a major focus of Chinese outflows under the BRI – official sources declare about US$25 billion.[1] Its experiences are, therefore, germane to understanding how the Chinese project has played out. 

The Pakistanis have had none of their economic problems resolved despite 10 years of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). For a project of such magnitude in terms of investment value, the number of jobs created in Pakistan runs into only a few hundred thousand[2] – in a country of over 240 million people. Meanwhile, CPEC simply added more power capacity with new thermal power plants despite the fact that the problem was never lack of capacity but non-payment of dues by the Pakistani consumers and hence the inability of power plants to buy the fuel to keep themselves going. 

But perhaps the biggest unintended impact of CPEC has been to turn Chinese presence in Pakistan into a matter of concern and debate among ordinary Pakistanis. The Chinese and their projects have been accused of discriminatory treatment – by the Balochis in Gwadar, by Pakistani businessmen who do not have the same privileges as their Chinese counterparts in the Special Economic Zones, and by Pakistani provinces Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa who believe the two other provinces, particularly Punjab, have cornered most of the benefits. Chinese presence appears to also have given a fillip to the insurgency in Baluchistan with frequent attacks against Chinese personnel.[3]

As for Sri Lanka, the argument has been made that Sri Lanka’s debt is not China’s fault but the result of Colombo’s own financial management – that the accusation against China of ‘debt trap’ diplomacy is unfounded. This line promoted by a desire to ‘stick to the facts’ or to the numbers is a classic case of missing the woods for the trees and explains why analyses of China have often failed to predict or anticipate Chinese behaviour despite the huge resources – money, language skills and data available to them.

Most observers fail to understand the nature of the Chinese state dominated by the Communist Party of China, an entity devoted to the single objective of remaining in power and in the pursuit of which goal it has determined that competing political systems outside of its borders, especially those liberal and democratic in nature are a threat to itself. Democratic systems are seen as unpredictable and capable of acting over and beyond concepts of self-interest. By contrast the cards fall clearly where authoritarian regimes are concerned – it is self-interest above all and China’s leaders are quite adept at dealing with such leaders having learned the skills from their own political experiences.

Thus, while it might not be possible to blame China for the numerical side of Sri Lanka’s debt, the latter’s downward spiral into debt was the result of a political system and policymaking style dominated by strongmen, an inability to exercise or share power in democratic fashion, equitably and without ethnic discrimination. And China directly encouraged and became a model for such political behaviour owing to its increasing presence in Sri Lanka as part of the BRI. From this perspective, Sri Lanka’s long-standing economic woes, including its mountainous debt, are clearly China’s fault. Of course, there are also hard numbers to back up concerns about a Chinese debt trap in a wide range of countries from Montenegro to Djibouti to Tajikistan.[4] The declining numbers of heads of state attending the 3rd BRF in Beijing this week compared to the two previous iterations tells its own story. 

And yet, China’s BRI continues to have wings – three spin-offs have emerged over the past three years – the Global Development, Security and Civilization Initiatives – and it is still difficult to put together and promote a coherent, consistent case of international bad behaviour against China’s BRI.

This is because, the United States, the world’s predominant purveyor of soft power and influential ideas while finally waking up to the long-term challenge from China since the Donald Trump administration is also just as liable to be distracted given the magnitude and diversity of problems it needs to deal with as the world’s sole superpower. Since February 2022, it has been involved in trying to counter a familiar adversary – Russia, over the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. And now, the Hamas attack on Israel and a likely prolonged conflict in West Asia will once again draw away American attention and financial and military resources. 

Under the circumstances, China, currently the other great purveyor of influential ideas – even if in the form of disinformation and falsehoods – given its global diplomatic reach and extensive economic resources, has a far more open field than it would have normally had. 

Who then can counter China’s international bad behaviour if not India? 

In 2017 on the eve of the 1st BRF, the Indian government was prescient when it laid out its objections to the Chinese project and advocated principles of ‘rule of law, openness, transparency and equality... of financial responsibility”[5] for the operation of connectivity projects. These are principles that BRI projects have largely ignored over the ensuing decade.

But India has been too slow to pick up the leadership mantle of countering China, showing a rather heavy dependence on the US in the ideational and operational space. India’s response even to Chinese transgressions across the LAC in 2020 left much to be desired. It has also failed to push forward some of its own connectivity projects that it highlighted in its 2017 statement – the Trilateral Highway project, the Chabahar Port in Iran, and the International North South Transport Corridor, for example. 

However, as India’s hosting of the G20 summit shows – it is not only action that matters but also messaging – the widespread impression that India was a successful host is as important as whatever actionable results might have been achieved. China’s 3rd BRF is an attempt at promoting what successes there have been and covering up the failures. New Delhi can do a better job than try to ignore the event or to simply reiterate its 2017 position as its foreign ministry spokesperson did a few days ago.[6] The US is distracted as a thought leader and missing in action in the battle against Chinese propaganda. India needs to step up. 


[1] http://pk.china-embassy.gov.cn/chn/zbgx/zbjjzl/202112/t20211223_10474658.htm ; https://tribune.com.pk/story/2440837/pakistan-fails-to-realise-cpec-potential. Some US$53 billion according to the American Enterprise Institute. https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/The-Big-Story/Road-to-nowhere-China-s-Belt-and-Road-Initiative-at-tipping-point 

[2] https://southasianvoices.org/ten-years-of-cpec-a-decade-of-disappointments/ 

[3] In the process, Pakistan itself appears to have become a matter of concern for Beijing. The previous Chinese ambassador in Pakistan Nong Rong was often out of the country and his replacement did not come in until some six months after he had left in February 2023. This was perhaps a reflection of both security concerns and unhappiness with Islamabad and Rawalpindi – Pakistan’s centres of political and military power respectively.

[4] https://www.cgdev.org/publication/examining-debt-implications-belt-and-road-initiative-a-policy-perspective

[5] https://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/28463/Official+Spokespersons+response+to+a+query+on+participation+of+India+in+OBORBRI+Forum 

[6] https://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/37199/Transcript_of_Weekly_Media_Briefing_by_the_Official_Spokesperson_October_19_2023 


A version of this piece was originally published as ‘India is not stepping up to the challenge of countering China’, Deccan Herald, 23 October 2023.