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On GPS: China's economy falls back to earth
07:34 - Source: CNN

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Hong Kong CNN  — 

As US President Joe Biden and top American officials traveled the world this summer, promoting a pledge of hundreds of billions of dollars for poorer countries, a largely unspoken motivation loomed in the background: competition with China.

For nearly a decade, Beijing’s sprawling overseas development initiative, known as the Belt and Road, has poured billions of dollars into infrastructure projects each year – paving highways from Papua New Guinea to Kenya, constructing ports from Sri Lanka to West Africa, and providing power and telecoms infrastructure for people from Latin America to Southeast Asia.

Washington now appears keen to bolster its own role in global infrastructure development as it intensifies its competition with China across the globe.

In June, Biden and leaders from the Group of Seven advanced economies promised to unleash $600 billion in investment – $200 billion of that from the US alone – by 2027 to “deliver game-changing projects to close the infrastructure gap” between countries.

This month, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited the South Pacific, promoting a new partnership to bolster support for island nations, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a plan aimed at Africa.

“We’ve seen the consequences when international infrastructure deals are corrupt and coercive, when they’re poorly built or environmentally destructive, when they import or abuse workers, or burden countries with crushing debts,” Blinken said during a visit to Pretoria, where he revealed the White House’s new “Sub-Saharan Africa Strategy.”

“That’s why it’s so important for countries to have choices, to be able to weigh them transparently, with the input of local communities without pressure or coercion,” he said in an apparent reference to common criticisms of Chinese-funded projects.

The challenge from the United States comes at a precarious time for China’s Belt and Road. Even as the initiative has had an impact on a number of countries, funding shortfalls and political pushback have stalled certain projects, and there is public concern in some countries over issues like excess debt and China’s influence. Accusations that Belt and Road is a broad “debt trap” designed to take control of local infrastructure, while largely dismissed by economists, have sullied the initiative’s reputation.

Economic challenges at home and a changing financial environment globally also have the potential to impact how China’s lenders and policymakers deploy funds, analysts say.

All this may create an opportunity for Washington to step forward and work with willing partners in need of financing. But major questions hang over the extent to which the US can deliver, both in terms of mobilizing billions and driving infrastructure – areas in which China has long excelled.

Boom or bust?

Since its official launch in 2013, early in the first term of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, funds under the initiative have powered the construction of bridges, ports, highways, energy and telecoms projects across Asia, Latin America, Africa and parts of Europe.

To do this, China has relied on lending, with capital often coming not only from its development banks but state-run commercial lenders – a stark difference to the American model that’s been largely based on official aid.

On average, during the first five years of the initiative from 2013 to 2017, China spent about $85 billion financing overseas development projects per year, more than twice as much as any other major economy, AidData, a research lab at William & Mary in the US, which tracks this spending from Chinese government institutions and state-owned entities, said in a 2021 report.

And while funding has been welcomed by countries around the world, it has also come with problems.

“We find that 35% of (Belt and Road) projects are suffering from some sort of implementation challenge,” said research scientist Ammar A. Malik, who heads AidData’s Chinese Development Finance Program. He said those issues include environmental incidents, corruption scandals and labor violations, and the 35% figure refers specifically to projects implemented solely by a Chinese entity.

AidData has also reported on what it terms “hidden debts,” referring to cases where the recipients of Chinese loans are entities like private or project companies, not governments themselves, but the terms of the loan require the host government to guarantee it. This can ultimately pass liability to them for repayment if the borrowers fall short, the researchers say.

China has pushed back on assertions of risky lending or environmental issues in its projects, pointing to its “green” initiatives and saying “such allegations do not reflect the whole picture.”

Uganda's Chinese-funded Karuma hydropower plant, pictured here in 2020, remains under construction after set-backs due to Covid-19.

Another question concerns the direction of the initiative, especially as China’s own economy flags amid a mortgage crisis and Covid-19 lockdowns, while many developing countries are struggling with rising debt and inflation – making lending a potentially riskier proposition.

Beijing has said it remains dedicated to the initiative, with its top diplomat Yang Jiechi at a trade forum on August 14 calling for Belt and Road to “promote the early recovery and growth of the global economy.”

But while tracking investments across a wide range of players, and without a central, public Belt and Road data source, is difficult work, there are signs that China’s efforts, especially big-ticket projects, have been slowing in recent years and since the pandemic.

For example, Chinese loans to Africa dropped 77% from $8.2 billion to $1.9 billion from 2019 to 2020, according to data from the Boston University Global Development Policy Center.