Building infrastructure projects that benefit everyone is not easy but by following several key principles it is achievable
By Duncan Gordon
President Xi Jinping opened the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing by reminding the assembled world leaders, experts and journalists, representing over 110 different countries, of the history of economic relations between China and the world. He recalled the epic journeys “over steppes and across deserts made by our ancestors” on the ancient Silk Road. Xi said that those historic trade routes embodied the values of openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual understanding, which the Belt and Road Initiative hopes to revive in today’s complex world, fraught with difficulties but also laden with opportunities for greater cooperation and development.
Infrastructure connectivity is a key piece of the Belt and Road jigsaw. Without it, there could be no trade and investment and consequently, no development. ASEAN countries hope to benefit from several major infrastructure projects, including the China-Laos railway, the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline and the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Economic Corridor. This incredibly ambitious initiative aims to build infrastructure projects in Asia, Europe, Africa and beyond on a scale never seen before, while upholding those values Xi mentioned in his keynote speech. That is no easy task. How can the Belt and Road initiative truly foster “a new type of international relations based on win-win cooperation”?
Dr. Aileen San Pablo Baviera of the University of the Philippines highlights the crucial importance of Belt and Road players’ capacity to understand the local contexts in which they work and argues that think tanks have an important role to play in disseminating knowledge. She says, “Think tanks should bring together all the parties involved in a potential project, from the local villagers to the national government, to identify challenges and priorities. Sometimes players are unfamiliar with the cultural or business environment of a country. Think tanks can help to fill this knowledge gap.” Indeed, Peter Drysdale, Emeritus Professor of Economics in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University agrees that real development occurs when all the parties understand each other. He points out that the Belt and Road Initiative promises to “give a high priority to issues that might cause disturbances,” but adds, “To deliver on those promises it will require a massive investment in international learning and communication both within China and between China and its partners. That’s the challenge of the Belt and Road Initiative.” Drysdale believes that language learning must form the backbone of that education, which can in turn enable deeper cultural understanding.
When it comes to implementing infrastructure projects that are to form the nerves and sinew of the initiative there has to be a consensus between partners on which projects are priorities and which projects may need to be reconsidered. In other words, Belt and Road infrastructure projects must complement the infrastructure needs and development aims of host countries. Drysdale emphasises that Australia, although not officially signed up to the initiative, welcomes Chinese investment in development projects in Northern Australia (a part of the country rich in natural resources but lacking developed infrastructure). Similarly, Egyptian Ambassador to China Osama El-Magdoub states that Belt and Road projects that China is cooperating with Egypt on, such as the Suez Canal development corridor, fit well with Egypt’s national aims. “Similar to the dream of the Belt and Road Initiative in China, we also have a dream of a developed Egypt. There are similarities and integration between the initiative and Egypt’s development plan,” the Ambassador says. This complementarity of targets is key if the initiative is to stay true to its mission of shared benefits.
A third factor important to the success of infrastructure endeavours along the Belt and Road is the need to carry out full project evaluation and follow the tenets of international law. Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) Joan Clos made it clear that infrastructure projects have the potential to dramatically improve lives in underdeveloped regions but they must respect the rights of individuals, abide by UN values and avoid activities such as illegal evictions. “Development is only development if it respects the people,” Clos stated. Someone who has first-hand experience of the importance of following procedures and respecting people directly affected by mega-projects is Steve Howard, Secretary General of the Global Foundation (Australia) and international advisor to the president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), one of the main lenders for Belt and Road projects. Howard recalls, “I was involved in the successful building of the biggest hydropower project in Laos 20 years ago, which operates today as the biggest energy exporter to Thailand. It took 10 years for the project to be developed. Why? Because it had to meet all the very difficult standards of best practice in environment, resettlement, health and more. It was a great success.” Howard also believes that thorough investigation and planning of projects is vital. “The prior preparation before you turn soil is everything. Before you start actually building a project you need to ensure there is a community that wants it, a government that wants it and ensure that it is going to be successful in every other way as well,” he explains. That sentiment was echoed by Professor Drysdale. He gives the example of Chinese enterprise Citic Pacific, which is undertaking a major iron ore investment in Australia; extracting, transporting and exporting the ore to China. Drysdale says that the company has to go through a lot of pre-arrangements related to environmental protection. He suggests regulations such as these may not be as “institutionalized” in developing countries on the Belt and Road as in Australia, but they must be adhered to in order to ensure win-win outcomes for everyone over the long-term.
These three principles: understanding local contexts, complementing national objectives, and adhering to international laws while undertaking full project evaluation, are crucial to the success of Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects. If this ground-breaking plan is genuinely to open a new chapter in international development the challenges outlined above will need to be met head on. As Xi Jinping put it, “geographical distance is not insurmountable if we take the first courageous step towards each other.”