BANGKOK • Some months ago, I watched a Chinese official struggling to defend Beijing at a forum that examined the implications of Chinese loans and infrastructure development in the region. The room was full of people familiar with the oft-told tale of Chinese money funding unfeasible projects that eventually drowned corrupt governments in debt, leaving their countries beholden to Beijing, a phenomenon now tagged as "debt-trap diplomacy".
When pressed later to explain China's reportedly agnostic attitude towards debtor governments with dubious standing, the official replied to The Straits Times: "Should you insist they reform before you help them? Do you want them to develop first, or reform first? Which is more important?"