Five years on, the world's most ambitious infrastructure programme is not a picture of good health. President Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, is materialising apace: The vast network of roads, railways, ports, pipelines and other connectivity projects now traverses nearly 70 countries to radiate towards China. Trailing alongside it are persistent doubts about its sustainability and intent.
Sri Lanka ceded a strategic port last year when it could not repay debt to Chinese creditors. Malaysia backed out of three pipeline projects and a rail link, citing "unequal treaties". Pakistan, the site of the flagship BRI project, the US$62 billion (S$85 billion) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is reassessing projects out of discomfort with lopsided terms. Similar concerns encircle the China-Laos high-speed rail link, being built at a cost of some US$6 billion - nearly half of Laos' gross domestic product (GDP). In Europe, Montenegro found its credit downgraded after borrowing from China to begin constructing a highway costing around a fifth of its GDP. The discourse on BRI has been dominated by negative headlines and animates those concerned about a grand plan to turn nations into tributary states ruled by an overlord that owns the infrastructure, supplies the capital and the labour, and writes the rules. But the mistrust surrounding China's quest for proportionate weightage and voice in world affairs as it overtakes the American economy may be also overdone.