Badirujjaman

Chinese Belt & Road Initiative (BRI): Perspective From Bangladesh

BRI started with its initial plan to connect China with Central Asia, East Asia, and Europe. Over time, BRI has developed its maritime Vision, named String of Pearls, which encompasses other regions of the world, i.e., Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. The project commenced with the objectives of boosting regional integration, accelerated trading among BRI members, initiating infrastructural development strategies, and stimulating economic growth [1]. 

Bangladesh and China have enjoyed a cordial and friendly relationship over the past fifty years. As economic and developing partners, now both countries are approaching strategic engagement with each other. Regarding the BRI project, for both OBOR and Strings of Pearls, China considers Bangladesh a strategically vital area. Bangladesh, owing to its peace-oriented foreign policy dictum “Friendship to All, Malice to None”, welcomed such an ambitious development project from China and had become part of BRI. 

But some observations and ambiguities related to the BRI have become essentiality to address from both sides, especially from the Chinese side. The intellectual contribution of the BRI, with the collaboration of Bangladeshi academia and civil platforms, is demanding to BRI members like Bangladesh. 

However, in this essay, we will explore the idea of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and try to critically analyze how Bangladesh should integrate into the process of BRI. 

I. Belt & Road Initiative: A Theoretical Explanation

There are some approaches that extend the idea of the BRI in academia, namely: 

    • Liberalist approaches: The liberal theory of international relations, also called liberal internationalism, focuses on win-win approach and a rule-based global order than an anarchic international system. Chinese policymakers articulate that the BRI is a suitable product of the liberal world. A successful manifestation of the BRI can ease the way for China’s integration into the global economic paradigm. China speeds the idea that the extensive infrastructural development initiatives under the BRI umbrella, targeting port facilities, roads and railways, energy sector extension, etc., can offer a win-win solution for both China and the BRI member states.  

    • Realist approaches: The realist theory of international relations emphasizes interest- and security-based foreign policy orientation in the context of international anarchy and power competition between countries. Experts from realism fields enunciate that the project BRI that China launched with the geopolitical ambition of China is to establish itself as a regional as well as global superpower [2]. Under the BRI dream, China is focusing on more strategic engagement with BRI’s member states. The large amount of money that China disburses for its partners’ development projects under the BRI provides China with leverage to engage more politically and strategically with them. The question of debt traps diplomacy of China and the upcoming great power politics regarding the Indo-Pacific region created such a buzz that China initiated the project- BRI for its own strategic and political ends [3].    

    • Constructivist approaches: The theory of constructivism in international relations outlines that, unlike the liberal and realist world we are seeing, the concepts of international relations that our ontology approaching are mostly socially constructed [4]. These ideas come from knowledge, and here knowledge is structured by powers (the power-knowledge nexus). The Belt and Road Initiative, according to constructivists, is an idea that is developed and spread by the Chinese government. The idea is based on China’s dream of being the lone Asian hegemon and Xi Jinping’s philosophy of the “China dream” or “revival of the Chinese Silk Road”. Moreover, constructivists highlight that the competition we are observing between China and the USA is based on the concept of establishing themselves as single hegemonies in Asia (peer-competitor). 

Experts from international relations discourse signify that, though the Belt and Road Initiative aimed at connecting China with the rest, particularly with Europe and the global south, the very nature of the global south has changed over time. Therefore, the BRI project has to be either developed or understood within the context of the global south. 

China must have acknowledged another important factor that because of distinct geopolitical and political considerations, the strategic as well as economic determinants of countries in the global south regarding engaging into the BRI platform could be asymmetric.  On that account, China should have calculated or designed the BRI project relevant to those countries or partners’ interests.  

Hence, to incorporate Bangladesh into the BRI umbrella, China needs to strengthen its bilateral ties with Bangladesh; prioritize effective development patterns for Bangladesh, and address the ambiguities and challenges regarding the projects emerging in the Bangladeshi domain [5]. Dr. Ali Ashraf, Professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University, outlines three important questions [6] concerning Bangladesh’s attachment to the BRI, namely:   

    1. Does Bangladesh’s participation in the BRI create opportunities for win-win situations? 

    1. Will BRI constrain the opportunities for Bangladesh to maintain strategic autonomy in foreign and security policy?

    1. To what extent does China’s BRI and Bangladesh’s participation in it creates opportunities for building a new world order based on shared visions? 

II. Chinese investment under the BRI: 

China’s 2020 energy investment was significantly higher than traditional sources, with 60% allocated to green energy. The $20 billion investment followed by $14.6 billion for transport, and 27% for coal, aligning with China’s dual fossil and renewable energy strategy [7]. 

The Green Belt and Road Initiative Center at the Central University of Finance and Economics Beijing reports that the majority of investments in 2020 were made in Asia, with East and West Asia receiving over 50% of the total, and Africa receiving 15% [8]. 

According to the Council for Pacific Affairs, China estimated $29 trillion to disburse the BRI-affiliated partner countries. Here, China is willing to take the helm of socio-economic infrastructure development for mostly low- and middle-income developing countries of the global south with proper development strategies and investment. The cost of infrastructure under the project is estimated at more than 26–27 trillion dollars, whereas China has pledged only $1 trillion [9].

III. South Asian Countries under the BRI: 

South Asia (SA), situated in the cross road of the BRI, remains a vital zone for China to implement the project. Besides being the world’s most densely populated region, China considers the region significant since some of the countries of the region are emerging economically like China itself.  Till now,  five South Asian countries have joined the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative [10].   

China’s BRI in South Asia includes four subprojects: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), the Trans-Himalaya Corridor, and China’s cooperation with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives under the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road [11].  

    • Pakistan: In 2013, Pakistan was the first country to join the BRI framework. Some developments between China and Pakistan in line with the BRI project are apparent in this region. Like:
        • China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); 

        • Gwadar Port in southwest Pakistan’s Gwadar; and 

        • China-backed Port Qasim coal-fired power plant in Pakistan; 

    • Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka has actively participated in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has participated in numerous cooperation programs with China. The Port City of Colombo and the Hambantota Port are two major projects undertaken under the BRI flagship. [12]. 

    • The Maldives: In 2014, the Maldives joined the BRI. Velana International Airport Development Project, and Sinamale Bridge was developed as part of the project. The bridge connects the Maldives’ Hulhumale and Hulhule islands to the capital city of Male.

    • Nepal: Nepal is a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and a crucial partner in the BRI. Nepal participated in the project with the view of converting its land lock position into a land-link position. The Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network is an initiative that both BRI and Nepal believe will help Nepal strengthen its role in the South Asian region [13].

IV. Bangladesh and the Belt & Road Initiative: 

Bangladesh is regarded as one of the emerging economies in the global economy. To make this progress sustainable, Bangladesh needs more investment and development planning. Since joining the BRI, Bangladesh has received more Chinese investment in some mega infrastructure and development strategies, which fosters its economic growth and financial stability [14].  

IV (a). Investment in infrastructure: 

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI)  estimates that China has invested $7.07 billion in Bangladesh, and has also secured $22.94 billion in construction contracts across various sectors [15]. China has allocated $4.45 billion for 35 projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) over the past decade, according to Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen . China is collaborating with 670 Chinese enterprises to build 27 power projects and 21 bridges in Bangladesh, while the private sector receives loans totaling over $2.33 billion for energy and power [16].  

Chinese presence in Bangladesh’s infrastructure is apparent more than ever. The BRI has undertaken several mega projects in Bangladesh. For example [17]:  

    • The construction of 550 kilometers of roads, including the Padma Bridge and the first underwater Karnaphuli River Tunnel Project.

    • Major road and bridge projects include Paksey Bridge, 8th Bangladesh-China Friendship Bridge, Dhaka Bypass, Dhaka-Khulna (N8) Project, Dhaka Elevated Expressway, and Dhaka-Ashulia Elevated Highway Project

    • Seven railway lines, totaling 541.9 kilometers, are under construction, including the Padma Bridge Rail Link Project, Tongi to Bhairab double track line, and Dohazari to Cox’s Bazar Railway. 

    • Over 50% of Bangladesh’s power generation capacity is accounted for by 27 power and energy projects that are mostly owned and operated by Chinese companies.

    • Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation has invested Tk8,341 crore in the Single Point Mooring project, aiming to construct 220 km offshore and onshore oil refinery pipelines, saving Tk800 crore annually in oil transportation.

    • The Dasherkandi Sewage Treatment Plant Project in Dhaka, funded by China’s Exim Bank, is a major initiative aimed at treating wastewater before releasing it into the Balu River.

    • The Payra 1320 MW Thermal Power Plant, a joint venture product, will be completed under the Bangladesh-China Power Company Limited (BCPCL) project.

    • Chinese enterprises have generated around 550,000 job opportunities for Bangladeshis etc. 

IV (b). Bangladesh-China Trade Relations: 

Bangladesh and China have been enjoying greater economic collaboration (win-win approach). Bangladesh has become the third-largest trading partner of China in South Asia. Irrespective of a trade deficit with China amounting to $16.9 billion in 2019-2020, Chinese export to ratio exponentially increased from FY 2012-13 to 2019-20 (according to the chart below). Due to its low prices and high demand for manufactured goods, China has the potential for meeting Bangladesh’s large population and rising economy. 

Bangladesh’s major imports from China related to the apparel and construction sectors of Bangladesh i.e. textile machinery and logistics; cranes, excavators, and bulldozers. Moreover, Bangladesh is one of the largest markets for Chinese electronic equipment. 

Exports from Bangladesh to China have increased significantly over the years, from $0.5 billion in 2012–2013 to $1.2 billion in 2019–2020 [19]. Moreover, China is providing duty-free access to 97% of Bangladeshi products starting in July 2020. Later, the extent of the facilities reached 98%. Bangladesh began selling eels and crabs to China again in July; this trade brings in about $50 million a year for Bangladesh [20]. Therefore, Bangladesh officials showed greater enthusiasm to elaborate on the skim of Bangladesh exports.

V. BRI and Bangladesh: An Analysis

Bangladesh has become a considerable place for foreign direct investment (FDI) for major investors like the West and the ASEAN+ region. Over the period, the inflow of FDI in Bangladesh has increased exponentially. In FY 2022, FDI inflows rose 20.2% ($3,479.95 million) compared to past inflows.

But the concerning issue is that both China and the US have invested in Bangladesh, and both have some distinct interests and agendas, as experts believe, apart from economic interest—that is, geopolitical and geostrategic interest. The ongoing Sino-US economic conflicts create discomfort among their partners, particularly countries like Bangladesh, which plays and pursues a balance between them for its own necessity.

As time goes on and the differences between the two raise questions about whether Bangladesh is going to engage in any of the particular sides or not, Professor Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University, clarified that the point is that Bangladesh should calculate the risk of being a side and have better stay away [21] from the conflict according to its foreign policy dictum, “Friendship to All, Malice to None.” 

V (a). BRI and Indo-Pacific Strategy: 

The USA, according to some economic experts, is witnessing its economic waning, but militarily, the US possesses the most powerful position on the planet. Recently, the foreign policy orientation of the USA shifted towards the Asia Pivot, and she engaged some big regional powers like Australia, India, and Japan with its Indo-Pacific strategic outlook. The IPS is primarily aimed at fostering economic collaboration rather than security questions among the partners in countering the Chinese economic position (hegemony) in the region.

This development seems challenging as well as opportunistic to countries like Bangladesh, which ride with the balanced position of both the parties, China and IPS countries. Though Bangladesh demonstrates her position regarding the IPS named “Bangladesh Indo-Pacific Outlook,” experts of the country refer to the fact that, in the matter of Bangladesh’s engagement with BRI amid the ongoing IPS, the BRI should place itself as neutral only as an economic and development platform that is beneficial to BRI partners in the Indo-Pacific region [22]. 

V (b). The Question of ‘debt-trap’:  

The ‘debt trap’ theory had political origins. An Indian scholar, Brahma Chellany, coined the term in 2017. The west later took the concept and constructed it against the Chinese economic engagement in the global south as “debt trap diplomacy.” 

Recently, the economic fallout in Sri Lanka raised the same allegation against China. But Sri Lankan ill political practices and a less focused development design regarding the borrowing of a large amount of foreign debt brought about the fallout. Major foreign investment in Sri Lanka comes from the West and Japan, compared to China, which is titled as the coercive development partner in mainstream media and the academic arena.

However, BRI partners like Bangladesh are showing their concern regarding the debt trap commentary. The gap should have been identified, taken seriously, and filled with critical and factual narration by the Chinese intellectual bodies before the BRI partners. 

VI. Lessons from the BRI for Bangladesh: 

Experts raise questions concerning the ongoing BRI project globally as well as domestically (in Bangladesh). They emphasize that it is important for Bangladesh to take calculative action before much alignment with the project. Moreover, Bangladesh can learn from the last decade of BRI engagement strategies internationally, and Bangladesh should evaluate them carefully and effectively to further engage with the project. 

    • The BRI project’s partners should focus on development plans, beginning at the local level. 

    • The BRI project must take into account any clauses or requirements that make it easier for the recipient nation to quickly and effectively return the investment.

    • Civil society, academics, environmentalists, journalists, and other relevant stakeholders should be involved in the project so that it becomes widely known.  

    • The BRI project should challenge with their intellectual wits and analysis the ongoing debate title “Chinese Debt-Trap Diplomacy” in the form of a BRI framework. Indeed, the debate has already created controversy among policymakers and other bodies of the BRI partners, like Bangladesh.

    • Finally, since IPS is also referring to economic collaboration among the regions, Bangladesh, as a part of that, will act to be part of the IPS, and here, China should accept this action from Bangladesh or other partners of the region, though both the USA and China have many differences regarding both the BRI and the IPS.

Conclusion:

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) started its journey aligning with the idea of reviving the Chinese Dream once again. The BRI describes how the project will be beneficial (a win-win approach) to partners’ economies and foster economic and development strategies for partners. But some issues, like the debt-trap controversy and strategic engagement with the partners, question these motives of the BRI.

Chana’s deliberate comment on supporting the present government of Bangladesh to continue the upcoming elections has raised questions regarding the BRI’s potential intentions of becoming strategic. However, experts suggest that Bangladesh should engage with the BRI only for economic interests rather than strategically considering the peer competition of the US and China.

The BRI is called another Global Marshall Plan from China that is obviously helpful for developing countries like Bangladesh. BRI can reduce our infrastructural shortages with its development planning. But here, Bangladesh should engage it more carefully because the country’s lack of governance, accountancy, transparency, and political stability can hinder progress like that happened in Sri Lanka. If China’s dream project, BRI, comes true and Bangladesh is ready and fit to take off, Bangladesh’s socio-economic conditions will improve in the following years.


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Reference:

1. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 2015. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). https://www.ebrd.com/what-we-do/belt-and-road/overview.html

2. Yuan, H. 2020. The Belt and Road Initiative and international relations theories: Challenges and a new research agenda. Vestnik of Saint Petersburg University. https://doi.org/10.21638/spbu06.2020.103

3.Ibid.

4.Theys, S. 2018. Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory. https://www.e-ir.info/2018/02/23/introducing-constructivism-in-international-relations-theory/

5. Ashraf, A. 2023. Paper Presentation on BRI and Bangladesh. https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/news/transparency-vital-bri-success-experts-3469106

6. Ibid.

7.Buchholz, K. 2021. Belt & Road Initiative: China’s Belt and Road Investment Map. https://www.statista.com/chart/16075/the-share-of-bri-investment-destinations/

8.Ibid.

9.State Council. 2015. Full text: Action plan on the Belt and Road Initiative. https://www.councilpacificaffairs.org/initiatives/full-text-action-plan-on-the-belt-and-road-initiative/

10.Yige, C, Wu, C. 2022. Pathway to brighter future: Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia. http://en.people.cn/n3/2022/0402/c90000-10079566.html

11.Ibid.

12.Bhatiya, R. 2016. Chinese investments in Sri Lanka. https://www.gatewayhouse.in/chinese-investments-sri-lanka-2/

13.Pandey, L. 2022. What is with China’s ‘Belt and Road’ projects in Nepal? https://www.dw.com/en/nepal-what-happened-to-chinas-belt-and-road-projects/a-61941737

14.Mohsin,S. 2023. BRI – 10 years on, and Bangladesh. https://thefinancialexpress.com.bd/views/bri-10-years-on-and-bangladesh

15.American Enterprise Institute (A. 2023. China Global Investment Tracker. https://www.aei.org/china-global-investment-tracker/

16.Noyon, U, A. 2023. How China’s Belt and Road is changing Bangladesh’s infrastructures.https://www.tbsnews.net/economy/how-chinas-belt-and-road-changing-bangladeshs-infrastructures-709826

17.Ibid.

18.Fair Team. 2023. CHINA-BANGLADESH TRADE RELATIONS: CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES. https://fairbd.net/china-bangladesh-trade-relations-challenges-and-opportunities/

19.Ibid.

20.Noyon, U, A. 2023. China eyes to boost investment in Bangladesh. https://www.tbsnews.net/economy/china-eyes-boost-investment-bangladesh-597782

21.Diplomatic Correspondent. 2023. Transparency vital for BRI success: experts. https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/news/transparency-vital-bri-success-experts-3469106

22.Ibid.

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