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Editorial: Take advantage of global pandemic to reorient China’s Belt and Road

  • May 13, 2020
  • , The Japan News , 1:28 p.m.
  • English Press

By extending massive economic assistance and investment to other countries, China aims to expand its influence and transform the international order centering on the United States. Will China continue to use this method as an infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus rages?


The pillar of China’s external strategy is the creation of a mega-economic bloc called the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). In this initiative, China promotes the development of railway, port and other infrastructure in countries across Asia, Europe and Africa to link China with those countries by land and sea. It was proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.


However, many of the projects are delayed due to the global spread of the virus. Many countries taking part in the initiative have closed their borders and restricted the movement of people to prevent infections. As Chinese workers have not been allowed to enter the construction sites, construction projects have been suspended one after another.


Italy became the first Group of Seven (G7) country to join the BRI last year, but the main projects of constructing ports are stagnant. Some in the Italian government have begun to call for a review of the projects.


There is no doubt that the initiative is facing a headwind due to the coronavirus disaster.


In the first place, there is a deep-rooted sense of caution against China’s methods. It has been pointed out that the Chinese government may develop ports and other facilities with loans that exceed the repayment capacity of the recipient country, in an attempt to obtain the right to use the facilities in exchange for the cancellation of debts and turn them into militant strongholds for China.


An increasing number of countries in Africa, among other areas, are introducing Chinese-style surveillance systems using digital technology. They could be used to suppress forces critical of their government.


China should take the global pandemic as an opportunity to correct its course. It should respect international rules and pay attention to the finances and state of affairs of recipient countries.


China’s gross domestic product (GDP) in the first three months of this year decreased by 6.8% from the same period last year. The monetary amount of new contracts awarded to Chinese companies in 57 of the BRI countries also decreased.


At an important meeting in April, the Xi administration confirmed that it would promote the BRI for economic recovery in the aftermath of the virus outbreak, but it will not be easy to continue foreign investment as before.


In developed countries, there have been moves to review supply chains, which are excessively dependent on China. If the moves spread to BRI countries, it will deal a blow to China.


China has been criticized by the United States and other countries for allegedly hiding information on the virus. The Chinese government has strengthened medical assistance to other countries including those that are part of the initiative in an effort to regain ground. It has sent masks and protective clothing to more than 150 countries and international organizations, including Italy.


In China, there is also great concern about the recurrence of infections and the economy. There is a limit to how much foreign aid displaying its influence can be used to deflect public discontent.


— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 13, 2020.

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