The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): a Golden Opportunity Facing Multiple Obstacles

by Sonia Said
Image: Christian Lue / Unsplash

Similar to the ancient Silk Road, the Belt and Road Initiative is bringing some modernity in a world where isolation is, sometimes even unconsciously, more and more encouraged. In that sense, the BRI seems to come at the right time to lead to China’s rise in the current world order. The plan is a golden opportunity for the country, but the project will probably encounter some obstacles. 

An Enormous Organization 

One of the biggest obstacles that could hinder the Belt and Road project is that it needs to take into account all its participating countries. The project initiated in 2013 by the Xi Jinping government aims to connect the country with over a hundred and thirty other countries.  However, not all of these countries are located on the same continent. In fact, initially, the BRI was supposed to connect China to the rest of Asia, but progressively more and more countries joined the initiative. Soon enough, one of the particularities of the project became to connect China to the rest of the world. With countries as different as South Africa, Chile, Poland, Chad or Cambodia, the task is undeniably challenging. In this context, the Chinese government needs to take into account the multiplicity of countries with their different types of government, their economical systems and their languages just to name a few elements that show the diversity in the participating countries. 

An Insecure Environment

The second biggest obstacle to the Belt and Road Initiative is the security component. Such an impactful project needs a very secure environment. But in the case of this project, China has decided to collaborate with a multitude of countries including some that are extremely poor, in war, or considered unstable, such as Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia. Investing in these countries could be considered a poker strike as it can be just as flourishing as it can be disastrous. Realistically, this project asks for taking into consideration a gigantic amount of data coming from all those countries. One way possible to do this is to classify all the participating countries according to their income group. A study led by the Green Belt and Road Initiative Center, however, showed that members cannot be put easily into boxes. Participating countries have been classified in four distinct categories of income group; high, low, lower-middle and upper-middle (Sacks, 2021). Such a broad variety of incomes is important to mention in the calculations of the project. It also underlines the potential inequality of implication of all those countries, a situation that could generate conflicts. On top of that, some of those countries can become a threat to the Republic of China if the project is not successful or considered not up to expectations. 

The Environmental Component

Another important challenge of the project is the consequences on the environemnt. Such an impressive initiative comes at a cost: its impact on the environment. Indeed, the implementation of the BRI is expensive in cost and energy. Therefore, it would be an euphemism to say that it is not eco-friendly per se. After being criticized numerous times for its potential negative impact on the environment, the leaders of the BRI have tried to tackle this issue by, for instance, taking part in the UN Environment Programme of the United Nations. The Belt and Road Initiative Green Development Coalition (BRIGG) is one of the projects led by the UN Environment Programme that would represent another opportunity to create a more sustainable environment. But according to numerous scientists, these actions are not enough. Recently, a study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the HSBC, called the “Greening of the Belt and Road Initiative” showed that the project has not “gained the proper attention” in order to be more eco-friendly (The ASEAN Post Team, 2019). Therefore, the planners of this immense project need to be aware and take into consideration the positive impact that a greener BRI could have on their reputation and more generally speaking, on the planet in its entirety. 

And What about Local Populations? 

Critics of the project often mention the risk of neglect of the local populations. In that sense, that is another challenge faced by the BRI. What would be their imprint in the organization, planification and setting up of the project? That is one of the main questions that will be very soon answered, once the project takes its shape. 

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