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The Belt and Road backlash

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is trumpeted as a ‘win-win’ for all, but is it everything it’s cracked up to be? Or are countries on its route, wary of Beijing’s motives and fearful of being trapped by debt to China’s big development banks, losing faith in the plan?


Illustration: Britt Spencer

It is the first great development project of the 21st century and maybe the greatest of all time. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is ambitious, expensive and, in its own way, collaborative. 

A project slated to cost anything up to $8 trillion has so far been astonishingly good at corralling financing and galvanizing support from many of the 71 countries along its dual route – an overland ‘belt’ linking China with Europe and a maritime ‘road’ snaking through the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.

Sovereigns short of quality infrastructure have borrowed heavily from the likes of Export-Import Bank of China (Chexim) and China Development Bank (CDB), Beijing’s development-banking double-act, while global investment banks work day and night to earn generous fees by channelling funding into anything bearing a ‘BRI’ tag. 

Some of these projects are hugely valuable. Take the new Chexim-funded $3.4 billion electric railway set to link the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa with Djibouti, a coastal state on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a pinch point on the way to the Suez Canal. 

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