Is the Belt Road Initiative a ‘Public Good’?

Chinese government officials, policy makers, academia, intelligentsia, and businesses have sung the chorus of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). They have attempted to convince the international community of the innumerable benefits that BRI could bring to the countries across the globe. While some nations have benefited from the Chinese largesse and praised and defended the initiative; others have been forced to either shelve the projects under the BRI or seek renegotiation of contracts to prevent ‘debt trap’. Over all it has been a mixed bag of successes and failures for the BRI.

The upcoming Belt and Road Forum titled ‘Belt and Road Cooperation: Shaping a Brighter Shared Future’ scheduled on 25 April is yet another attempt to glorify the BRI. It would also serve Chinese requirement to clean the ‘uninviting image’ of the BRI which has been labeled as ‘geopolitical tool’, ‘predatory politics’, and ‘colonialism with Chinese characteristics’.

There are reasons to believe that the forthcoming Belt Road Forum could be an attempt to pedal the BRI as a ‘public good’. Although the official Chinese documents on the BRI do not use the word ‘public good’, some in China now argue that it is so. At the heart of the idea of ‘public goods’ is the notion that services which are ‘non-exclusionary’ are to be enjoyed by all without paying. Further, under the concept of ‘non-rivalry’, potential users are not competing, and the goods are enjoyed by larger number of stakeholders without reducing the availability to others.

Earlier, during the 1st Belt and Road Forum in 2017, Foreign Minister Wang Yi had emphatically argued that the idea of the BRI may have its origins in China, but it ‘belongs to the world with its benefits flowing to all countries’ and that it ‘has become the common cause of the world and will help rebalance economic globalization by making it more universally beneficial and inclusive’.

Today, the BRI stretches across Asia, Africa and Europe through land and maritime connectivity networks involving six corridors (latitudinal and longitudinal) to accelerate global, regional and sub-regional integration through trade. Its footprint is seen in 123 countries and 171 cooperation documents have been signed with 29 international organizations. During Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in September 2018, 37 states from Africa signed memorandums of understanding (MoU).

However, use of taxonomy of ‘public good’ for BRI may not be relevant. It is reasonable to believe that BRI may meet the criteria of ‘non-exclusionary’ given that China has invited the international community to join the Initiative. It has extended the offer of ‘third party projects’ and invited India and Japan. The latter has already signed MoU with China to develop project in Thailand. However, in the context of BRI being ‘non-rivalry’, it falls short of being labeled as ‘public good’. This is primarily due to the fact that the BRI is not just an economic initiative, as argued by the Chinese; instead it has strong strategic undercurrents that in themselves are competitive in nature. For instance, the purpose of building maritime infrastructure in Djibouti was first labeled as an economic initiative, but soon the facility was converted into a Chinese naval base.

In the past, China argued that lighthouses, weather satellite monitoring systems and radar station on the disputed reefs and reclaimed features in the South China Sea are common ‘public goods’. Further, these offer navigational services to the shipping passing through the area. For instance, the maritime rescue center on the Fiery Cross Reef would help fishermen requiring assistance during natural events such as hurricanes or when they had an emergency or an accident and require evacuation. It is true that these will certainly support humanitarian missions including search and rescue; however the use of reclaimed feature as naval outposts defeats the concept of ‘public good’, case similar to Chinese naval base in Djibouti.

Unlike the above, a good example of ‘public goods’ for China could be its engagements in the Gulf of Aden to fight Somali piracy. It is widely known and acknowledged that pirates are the enemy of all and labeled as hostis humani generis under public international law. Counter piracy operations can therefore be understood within the framework of public goods under which navies and marine law enforcement forces ensure safety of merchant shipping irrespective of their flag state.

It is fair to conclude that any reference to BRI as ‘public good’ would undermine the very concept for which it is designed; however, if China can remove the fog around the BRI, bring more transparency, make it less predatory, ensure it does not tread into the sovereignty of nations, and prevent the strategic use of such projects for power projection, the international community may welcome the BRI as a ‘public good’.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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