Whenever one thinks about the Belt & Road Initiative, it sounds like just another Chinese Mega Project. However, it is not just a mega project, it is the dream project of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. If the China Dream is the end goal for the Chinese, Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is the tool to achieve the same.
As reports are piling up about the economic distress within China and the domestic companies defaulting left and right, the BRI is facing the tanking effect. The country is affected by the economic downturn because of the COVID crisis, and unlike what China would want others to believe, the country is suffering from a combination of liquidity crunch and consumer market scarcity. The question that, whether China can sustain its domestic economy as well as fund the international imperial projects, still in their infancy has a very obvious answer, that it just cannot. It has to either focus on internal disruptions and clear them before they transcend to the stature of unsurmountable crisis be it NPAs or other things. Or just focus on its imperial designs and let the country fall like a house of cards. And any sane person could predict the options that China will be choosing.
Xi Jinping’s imperialist and neo-colonial dreams were elaborated in his definition of China Dream. The idea has always been to reclaim the perceived lost glory of the past and the centrality of the world, that is, to become the Middle Kingdom in all literal translations. For that very purpose, as soon as Xi Jinping came to power, he started talking about the China Dream and simultaneously launched the Belt & Road Initiative. It was supposed to be the Silk Road of the 21st century, however, as the size of the known world is now the whole of the Earth, China’s new Silk Road also aimed at connecting the whole world, making in turn, China the centre of the whole world and the epicentre of Human Society. With which China under the new Emperor Xi Jinping would be able to rule the whole world, as its only sovereign. This too comes from the Chinese understanding of ‘Son of Heaven’ concept. As there can be only one son of heaven, that is, the ruler legitimised by heaven to rule the Earth, thus, the whole of the earth can have only one overlord.
These ideas were able to surface within Chinese worldview because of the unprecedented amount of economic growth Beijing was able to witness. The idea that China could do the impossible has made it the prisoner of its own actions. Based on the success, Beijing thought it can lead a project which will create a pan-earth route of trade and commerce for the entire world and the route for Chinese hegemony of the whole world too. However, with the recent economic disaster, it is facing has blown all these illusions into dust.
A visible decline in China’s Belt and Road activity be it investing in new projects or financing existing projects, is already visible. Only this year, the number of new contracts signed by Chinese firms in the first nine months in 61 countries has shrunk by 29 per cent compared to last year. The value of contracts signed by Chinese firms has also gone down by 17.5 per cent year on year. The countries in Africa, Eastern & Central Europe, ASEAN and Central Asia have received less funding compared to earlier years.
The countries which have been sticking with China, purely for financial reason are now distancing themselves from Beijing for more lucrative deals with countries like the USA or European Union. Thus, the fact that China did not build any soft power influence in the BRI countries will have a disastrous effect as and when the economic incentive vanishes. It is not just the incentive, the recipient countries are silencing the voices of their own citizen, and practising monstrous amount of corruption thus much of the investment turn into NPAs and, as the social order in those countries become more precarious, the possibility of the infrastructure too may become unsustainable.
These kind of problems are only going to amplify post-pandemic, and given the economic downturn within China, it will remain helpless to solve these issues. The Chinese will witness the dissemination of the BRI infrastructure with their own eyes and would not be able to do anything as they will be busy getting their own house in order.