UBC professor discusses Belt and Road Initiative

$200 billion in bank loans cause concern for potential debt trap among developing nations

The BRI focuses on reviving trade along the historic Silk Road while expanding to European markets. (Unsplash)

Political science assistant professor and director of the Institute of Asian Research at UBC, Yves Tiberghien, discusses what the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) consists of, including its drivers, causes and implications for global and regional governance.

Initially named One Belt One Road (OBOR) and also commonly referred to as the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, the BRI is a development strategy adopted by Chinese President Xi Jinping involving infrastructure development and investments in 152 countries worldwide; including Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. Over $200 billion in bank loans have been disbursed to accelerate global infrastructure with much concern of a potential debt trap for many developing countries.

“This is essentially a major vision; it’s not a very tight plan, it’s not an organized plan, it’s a vision emerging and bursting out of China,” he said. “For China, I see it as a globalization strategy; it’s not like the Cold War where China is presenting a new approach to globalization, or a non-capitalist, non-liberal view of the world. In fact, it fits within the paradigm, it doesn’t advance new norms or new values.”

The BRI initiative was created as a response to the American-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which excluded China and focuses on improving trade standards in the Pacific region. Unsurprisingly, the BRI excludes the U.S. (likely out of vengeance) and focuses on reviving trade along the historic Silk Road route while expanding to European markets at a competitive level with that of the U.S. Both the TPP and the BRI are seen as strategic undertakings aimed at increasing American and Chinese influence in the Pacific respectively.

“Initially there was benign ignorance by the U.S. for three years, as of 2018, the U.S. got hot about it and so now it’s part of the strategic competition between the U.S. and China,” he said. “In Europe, it’s generating a new historical force that is the potential reconnection of Europe with China and Asia, which has existed in the past.” 

Interestingly enough, the BRI directly impacts British Columbia through an explicit memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the initiative. Discussions have been ongoing between the Guangdong and the British Columbia provincial governments negotiating how to stimulate maritime and economic connectivity between the two provinces and encourage collaboration between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Canada’s Pacific Gateway Strategy. 

“B.C. was the only North-American jurisdiction to sign an MOU with Belt and Road; it was signed by Christie Clark, the former premier, spearheaded by the minister of trade which at the time was Teresa Wat,” Tiberghien added. “There was a grand ceremony in Vancouver where B.C hosted Hu Chunhua, party secretary of the Guangdong province and member at the time of the Politburo [of the Communist Party of China], so [it was a] pretty high-profile visit and there was in fact a signature connecting the Pacific Gateway and the Belt and Road Initiative.”

In many ways the BRI appears as nothing less than an attempt to solve China’s problems of overcapacity and surplus capital, which to some degree has proven effective; nevertheless, Tiberghien argues that the project is nowhere near enough to solve the overcapacity issue.

“The overcapacity is so big that the Belt and Road [Initiative] is not enough to really solve that problem for China,” he said. “What it is, is an organic process that got boosted in 2014 around the APEC Summit around infrastructure, trade and investment going in many directions building on Chinese competitive advantage and it’s gradualist approach to development.”