Check the small print, urges senior British diplomat to Belt Road nations

The Belt and Road project has received much criticism, especially over accusations of a debt trap, but the recipient countries of Chinese largesse are usually aware of the dangers

A senior-ranking British diplomat has warned nations intending to sign up for the Belt and Road project to check the finer details of any agreement before taking the plunge.

Sir Alan Collins made the remarks during a wide-ranging exploration of the world’s greatest geopolitical issues in 2019 at an event hosted by the Royal Geographical Society in Hong Kong on March 5. His talk covered a multitude of issues in the Middle East, Syria and Iran, to newer conflicts in Venezuela and South Sudan, and what the rise of China and Russia means for the global political landscape.  

A diplomat with 30 years of experience as a high commissioner or ambassador, he believes the ascent of China to a predominant global power is inevitable.

“China is an ancient civilization and it naturally wants a seat on the world stage. The recent landing of a space craft on the moon shows its ambition as a nation,” he says.

He also states that the substantial investments that China has made over recent years in many overseas countries is nothing new by historical standards.       

“There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the Belt and Road. After all, other powers did similar things years ago,” he says. “However, I would just urge caution about agreeing to the conditions. Those nations involved with Belt and Road projects should check the small print before they go ahead with any projects.”

The diplomat’s concerns echo widespread fears of late that some Belt Road countries are being sucked into a so-called “debt trap”. Collins cited the example of Sri Lanka, which has recently handed over a port on a long lease to Chinese-owned companies.

The Chinese government, increasingly sensitive to accusations of luring countries into a debt trap, insists that these projects are fair and in the long-term interests of the recipient countries. Recent research by journalists in Kenya, however, suggests the loan conditions for a railway between Nairobi and Mombasa have stipulated that the Mombasa port be used as collateral for the deal.

Some commentators suggest Africa could get better deals by showing more unity, rather than negotiating with China on a country by country basis, and that democratically-elected governments will tend to secure the best deals for the population as a whole. 

This was a theme explored by Collins during his lecture. “The borders for the countries in Africa were carved out by colonial powers, Britain, France, Germany and others. These borders were not ideal on geographical or ethical lines. In many ways, Africa has suffered from that.”

The system of governance in Africa is an area of concern, with unaccountable elites siphoning funds out of Africa via money laundering, to places like London and Hong Kong. Collins draws encouragement from the transition that took place in South Africa to a democratically-elected, representative form of government. Other parts of Africa need to go through a similar process.    

However, with a young, expanding population and blessed with abundant natural resources, Africa boosts enormous potential, says Collins. But its economic development and civil society needs to improve. “The best way forward is for Africa to do it itself, to stand on its own two feet,” he says.

Treating Africa as a mature partner was a theme taken up by Nnanna Anyanwu in an article published in The Asset magazine. He believes recent criticism of China has in many ways been unjustified, and that the term debt trap is misleading.

“China offers a mature approach. Unlike the West, which links loans and aid to specific fiscal or humanitarian reform efforts, China, has adopted a slightly different approach: it treats African countries as ‘adults’ and makes them fully accountable for the consequences of their borrowing actions,” says Anyanwu.

Anyanwu adds that debts received by most African governments are low-interest, long-term debts. He says, “However, most elected politicians serve for a maximum of two terms of 8-10 years depending on the country. With very little continuity in governance across most Sub-Saharan African countries, it is possible the thinking in the room is ‘take the money, spend recklessly, and let the incoming government deal with the fall out.’”

China needs to mobilize soft power to illustrate the positive effects of its investment in Africa, such as providing access to much-needed low-cost technology that is key to Africa’s industrialization, while the infusion of capital has helped local businesses grow.

“China can learn from India and South Korea, two Asian nations who have successfully deployed soft-power diplomacy. Indians have smartly leveraged Bollywood and Zee TV to promote its culture to Africans, while South Korea has used K-dramas and K-pop to shape its perception as being a trendy, cosmopolitan and forward-thinking country to engage with,” he adds.

The relationship between African countries and China can be strengthened on multiple fronts, including developing China-specific civil service capabilities to improve engagement with Chinese investors.

“Both China and African nations must explore alternative models for future infrastructure investments, ones which de-emphasize debt, and are skewed in favour of FDI attraction,” adds Anyanwu.         

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