Belt and Road Forum II, Part III-Quality Quashes Quantity? Quackery!

Dr. Jean-Marc F. Blanchard's picture

Many observers viewed the 2nd Belt and Road Forum (BRF) as a time for China to make amends, at least verbally, for the shortcomings of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has been associated with inter alia corruption, excessive debt burdens, environmental damage, opacity, and the displacement of local labor. On a related note, at the 2019 Osaka G20 summit, China signed on to Japanese promoted principles for quality infrastructure which stress inter alia debt sustainability, transparency, and attentiveness to social impacts, putatively to blunt criticism about its BRI. It seems shortsighted, however, to proclaim a Japanese victory and a Chinese defeat. One reason is that Japan’s higher standards, while impressive on paper, may not necessarily suit the political and/or economic needs of countries which, in turn, will drive them to work with China. Another reason is that it remains to be seen if Japan, no economic slouch, can muster the funds needed to support its initiative. Aside from these considerations, there are enough projects (or big enough) projects that quality and quantity can exist concurrently. Indeed, while a “meeting in the middle” may not happen, it is possible that Tokyo and Japanese multinational corporations (MNCs) may loosen their infrastructure project and financing standards somewhat and that China and Chinese MNCs increase their infrastructure project and financing standards somewhat which means Japan, China, their MNCs, and participant/host countries may all benefit to some extent. Regardless, while the debt trap charge against China is overdone, debt sustainability remains a serious issue and countries building infrastructure, regardless of if in Africa, Central Asia, or Southeast Asia are going to have to ensure they are attentive to the economic viability of projects and the repayability of their loans lest they create legions of showcase projects that ensnare them, MNCs, and project financiers.