China needs 'new narrative' for Belt and Road Initiative for it to reap dividends, says economist

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers his speech during the welcoming banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 14, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - China needs to come up with a new narrative for its marquee Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) if it wants the mega-project to reap financial and political dividends, a visiting international business scholar said on Monday (March 26).

University of Michigan economist Linda Lim said that the BRI in its current form is viewed by participating countries as exploitative and not mutually beneficial, and would be unlikely to enhance China's soft power.

"BRI projects are financially and politically risky. In economic terms, it will be difficult to make money on them... In foreign policy terms, they have so far made China more unpopular than popular in most BRI countries," said Professor Lim.

She was speaking at a seminar on challenges facing the BRI, organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Prof Lim, who is also RSIS' NTUC Professor of International Economic Relations, is visiting the school for a few weeks and giving a series of lectures.

The BRI, mooted by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, is a plan to build infrastructure such as roads, railways, ports and industrial hubs to connect some 65 countries, reviving modern versions of the ancient land and sea trade routes linking China to Africa and Europe.

Prof Lim pointed out that many BRI projects had run into financial and political problems.

For instance, Sri Lanka was forced last December to hand over to a Chinese state-owned company control of its Hambantota port, which sits on the country's southern coast, after it was unable to pay back loans it took from Beijing to build the port.

In Myanmar, Chinese projects have also sparked protests and been delayed because of their environmental and social impact.

Prof Lim, who has conducted interviews with people from Malaysia, Myanmar and Indonesia, noted that there was a view that Chinese projects did not create jobs for local people.

One respondent pointed out that Chinese companies brought in not only executives to lead projects, but also "100 per cent of the staff... all the way down to the cook", she said.

This was behaviour that had to change if the projects were to be more economically successful and popular, she added.

Among other things, China would have to collaborate and make decisions with the project's host country, and Chinese companies would have to become "less Chinese", employ locals and partner companies from other countries, including those from the West, Japan and Korea, she said.

"That is how the original Silk Routes operated," Prof Lim said.

"The Chinese did not conduct all the trade, different ethnic and cultural groups controlled different parts of the then global value chain, which was highly cosmopolitan."

But she added that this would come with trade-offs - if the projects are seen as less Chinese, it could dilute China's goal of enhancing its soft power in BRI countries.

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