Academia, journalists, and researchers are into an intense debate that whether BRI is a debt trap or a developmental project that holds a vision of shared prosperity. But the majority of the Western-centric scholars term it as a debt trap and such a tagging is premeditated to generate a strategic discourse that concludes that China’s debt-trap diplomacy is to dominate developing nations for exercising an influence on their foreign policies.
Brahma Chellaney is said to have coined the term “Debt Trap Diplomacy (DTD)” in 2017. According to him the deliberative loaning of China to economically underdeveloped nations was aimed at keeping them under the tight thumb of China. Because those countries would be unable to pay Chinese debts and in return, China may ask for political support or military bases. This is Western-centric strategic discourse that U.S. and European countries have been successful to establish.
Understanding the matter better
If a careful analysis of China’s overseas spending is done, we will find out that China is outspending the U.S. and even other major powers on a 2-to-1 basis. That is the major problem not only for the U.S. but for her allies as well. Because if China’s development projects are completed, they definitely will replace the U.S. in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and South America. The development of infrastructure under the BRI is to be sustainable. African countries have had a patron-client relationship with their former colonial masters but China’s engagement with Africa provided them a win-win regional engagement with a complete package that offers opportunities for African youth and connectivity with global trading partners.
U.S. Vice Admiral Michael Franken underlined the significance of China’s development projects in Africa under the BRI and said “The Chinese may stay or they may go, but the railroad they are building will stay,” and the railroad is what many African countries are counting on.” The U.S. has very high stakes in the completion of BRI because BRI has the potential to replace the U.S. in the Eurasian and (the Middle East and North Africa)MENA region. The U.S. has adopted an approach to generate a narrative that China’s BRI is a DTD to capture small nations if they fail to pay back loans. In that policy objective, the U.S. has been much successful as European countries are cautious of BRI. There is a debate in academia, conferences and media talks whether the DTD of China will be successful or not.
AID Data Research lab released statistics that about 13,427 development projects of China worth 843 billion and also touched upon so-called hidden debts. But no details of the debts are mentioned. Even if some countries are borrowing from China, it is a bilateral arrangement and no third country should have any problem. China promotes mutual respect and no interference in the internal and external affairs of any country.
The U.S. is trying tooth and nail to prove that China’s investments are comprised of hidden debts in Africa, Asia, and South American nations. But China so far is aiming to convince the world that it carries no hidden agenda but to share prosperity with regional and global partners. Those countries who are benefitting from bilateral trade are getting closer to China but for Western-centric media China eyes for political gains.
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What is the major agenda behind Chinese investments?
Ciara Nugent of Time Magazine writes that Chinese investment reaped political gains for China in South America. “In the past four years, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama have each switched their recognition from Taiwan to China. Gaining these kinds of alliances in Latin America offers Beijing invaluable votes at the U.N. and backing for Chinese appointees to multinational institutions.”
The major dilemma for China to counter the Western-Centric narrative is that China’s few English channels have minimal outreach to commoners across the globe. China’s narrative despite being forthright is still unable to counter the narrative of DTD. This narrative of DTD is likely to be quashed once the projects under BRI are completed and the participating member states start benefitting from them.
As China and U.S. have been contenders for overseas spending the problem does not lie with the Chinese debts or hidden debts but with China spending more than the U.S.It is not complex to understand for the students of international politics that a rising challenger always gets a fierce response from established hegemon.
It is surprising to know that “In an average year during the BRI era, China spent $85 billion on their overseas development program as compared to the U.S.’s $37 billion.”
Daniel F. Runde claims that U.S. economic assistance has helped developing countries and also furthered her own foreign policy objectives. As a result of U.S. economic assistance many countries prospered. But imagine those countries received economic assistance in the 1960s and it took more than a half-century for them to come out of U.S. assistance. Some early signatory to U.S. defense agreements like SEATO and CENTO, notably Pakistan, Iran and Iraq could not come out of economic doldrums. Because these Islamic countries did not subscribe to U.S. sponsored system in letter and spirit. Therefore, the theory that U.S. assistance prospered partners to U.S. does not qualify
Daniel F. Runde proudly mentioned that Germany and Japan were able to come out of the destruction of World War II and became top trading partners and eventually security allies but he perhaps forgot to mention China was a struggling economy and introduced reforms in 1978 to liberalize economic trade, surpasses all other nations without seeking economic assistance from the U.S. or her allies.
There is a popular old Chinese old dictum “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” China’s foreign policy approach in the world is based on this dictum. The BRI is about sharing prosperity with the rest of the world and it is being defamed as a debt trap.
The first lesson in international politics is taught that states are rational actors. If states are rational actors, then they must be sovereign in their choice to accept such bilateral or multilateral deals with China. The immense propaganda against BRI is merely an extension of the U.S. geopolitical objective whereas it requires geoeconomic manifestations to reach a win-win situation.
Dr. Rizwan Naseer is a strategic security analyst and he is associated with PAF Air War College Institute (AWCI) Karachi. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.