The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a foreign policy and economic strategy of the People’s Republic of China. The BRI is an ambitious programme to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks along six corridors with the aim of improving regional integration, increasing trade and stimulating economic growth.The name was coined in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who drew inspiration from the concept of the Silk Road established during the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago. It was an ancient network of trade routes that connected China to the Mediterranean via Eurasia for centuries. The BRI had also been referred to in the past as ‘One Belt One Road.’ The BRI comprises a Silk Road Economic Belt, a trans-continental passage that links China with Southeast Asia, Southern Asia, Central Asia, Russia, and Europe by land and a 21st century Maritime Silk Road, a sea route connecting China’s coastal regions with Southeast and South Asia, the South Pacific, the Middle East and Eastern Africa, all the way to Europe.
Under the BRI initiative’s five cooperation priorities of policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people bond, there is a batch of projects such as transportation, construction and industrial infrastructure, that is underway in full swing or already has yielded fruitful results.The programme is expected to involve over US$1 trillion in investments, largely in infrastructure development for ports, roads, railways and airports, as well as power plants and telecommunications networks. The BRI’s geographical scope is constantly expanding. So far, it covers over 70 countries, accounting for about 65 percent of the world’s population and around one-third of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).The BRI comes as a big blessing for a country like Bangladesh. It is also offering an opportunity for Bangladesh to integrate with the international market. The country officially became a part of the BRI in 2016 after a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping when the two countries signed several deals worth $21.5 billion. Beijing also assured Dhaka that it would better align its projects under the BRI with Bangladesh’s development priorities, a key issue of concern for the people of Bangladesh during a recent visit of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to China.
During Sheikh Hasina’s visit to China, the two countries signed nine instruments which included five agreements, three memorandums of understanding (MoUs) and a document covering a range of sectors, including power, investment, culture, tourism and technology. Important among these is a Letter of Exchange under which China will provide Bangladesh with 2,500 metric tonnes of rice as an aid for Rohingya refugees and two agreements that relate to China’s extension of loans worth $1.7 billion for Bangladesh’s power sector. Bangladesh has received a large amount of funding from China for infrastructure projects. The two countries signed 27 agreements for investments and loans worth around $24 billion during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka that year. Together with the $13.6 billion invested in joint ventures earlier, Chinese investment in Bangladesh is said to be worth over $38 billion, making China Bangladesh’s single largest investor. This makes Bangladesh the second-largest recipient of Chinese loans under the BRI in South Asia.
In 2016, Bangladesh and China became strategic partners. China is Bangladesh’s largest trade partner and trade is increasing. The two-way trade, which was worth $12 billion in 2014, is expected to exceed $30 billion by 2021. Chinese investment in Bangladesh has been growing remarkably in recent years. During a period between 1977 to 2010, Chinese investment in Bangladesh totalled just $250 million. This rose to roughly $200 million in 2011 alone. In the wake of the BRI, China has emerged as Bangladesh’s largest investor. Like other emerging economies, Bangladesh is anxious to develop its infrastructure. However, the traditional sources of funding have proved to be inadequate, driving Dhaka to look to the BRI and Beijing to meet this need. China is playing an important role in Bangladesh’s infrastructural development. It has upgraded Chattogram Port and is building an industrial park there. It is also constructing road and railway lines linking this Bay of Bengal port to Kunming in China’s Yunnan province. China has also built eight friendship bridges in Bangladesh, including the $3.7 billion roads and rail bridges across the Padma River. Additionally, China is investing in a $1 billion project to improve the digital connectivity. And China is investing heavily in Bangladesh’s power sector. Indeed, most of its investment in the 2018-19 fiscal year went into Bangladesh’s energy sector, particularly to coal-fired power plants, including those being constructed at Chattogram and Payra.The World Bank cancelled a $1.2 billion credit for the Padma Multipurpose Bridge project, citing high-level corruption.
In contrast, China is executing the project. Consequently, Bangladesh views the BRI as an opportunity to develop its infrastructure. Bilateral defence ties are also robust.
The BRI provides new opportunities for China in terms of regional cooperation and global development. If the BRI initiative can follow its principle, as well as, gain the support and collaboration of relevant countries, the promotion of inclusive globalisation will gradually eliminate the phenomenon of anti-globalisation and push forward the globalisation to a better situation.The realisation of the BRI objectives will also help Bangladesh achieve the SDGs. But, for implementation of the BRI projects, Bangladesh will require trade facilitation reforms. Bangladesh has to mobilise its domestic resources through tax reforms and public-private partnership. The selection and planning of the BRI projects should be sound with a full understanding of the economic and social benefits that will be created through such projects. For timely completion of the projects and minimise cost overruns, public disclosure of the BRI projects, terms and conditions of project finance and monitoring, reporting, and anti-corruption measures should be in-built in the project implementation mechanism.
(The writer acknowledges with gratitude different sources of information.)
The writer is a Chinese Government PhD Fellow and Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Jagannath University, Dhaka