In 2013, China increased its spending following President Xi Jinping's proposal to create what he called the "One Belt One Road" initiative, a project that envisages infrastructure investment in developing countries. During the last 10 years the concept has changed. Observers say China's strategy of expanding global influence may be entering a new phase.
Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China is expanding its influence around the world by financing projects in far-flung places such as a hydroelectric plant in Ecuador and a high-speed railway in Laos.
But what exactly is the "One Belt One Road" initiative?
"The idea behind the 'One Belt One Road' initiative is to strengthen the ties between China and the global south. Most of the funding through this initiative has gone to infrastructure sectors such as transport, energy, mining and similar projects. But now China is expanding the initial initiative with cultural programs, educational scholarships, Confucius institutes and others," says Ammar Malik, an expert on Chinese development programs.
He is a researcher at the AidData Center, a research lab at William & Mary University that collects information on the finance of China's development projects around the world.
Data show that over the past 20 years, China has been the largest lender to many developing countries.
The One Belt One Road initiative has its roots in a volatile time in the global economy, says Min Ye, an expert on Chinese political economy at Boston University.
"History shows that this initiative began with the global financial crisis of 2008, when the world market was shrinking. China invested a lot in building these companies, roads, bridges, factories to produce cement, steel, electrical equipment - everything. Then another need arose. They began to have many factories that had exceeded production. In 2011-2012 overproduction in China was around 30 to 80 percent, depending on the sector. When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China was in deep crisis," says Min Ye, an expert on China's political economy.
Then, in November 2013, President Xi launched what is now known as the One Belt One Road initiative.
"When this initiative started, it was fascinating to see industrial regulators, businesses, local governments rushing to seize the opportunity to invest abroad and export," says expert Min Ye.
"The initiative is not an entity. It is not a budget line in Chinese government spending. It's a concept. It is the umbrella of many entities that offer projects in various sectors around the world. China is building most of the world's infrastructure – including bridges, tunnels, high-speed railways. China has created an ecosystem of state-owned enterprises and financial institutions that have the ability to build around the world," says expert Ammar Malik.
"It's more like a globalization strategy of China and a way to globalize Chinese businesses and organizations. Countries, especially in the global south, have a real need for infrastructure, goods and connections with China, so this is more like a global initiative than a China initiative," says Ms. Min Ye.
Many countries have benefited from the projects of the "One Belt One Road" initiative.
In 2016 the then president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, celebrated the closing of works on a hydroelectric plant built by China.
"We inaugurated the largest infrastructure ever built in this country, the Coca Codo Sinclair hydro plant, with a capacity of 1,500 MW that can provide energy to all the homes of Ecuador," Mr. Correa said in his speech on November 18, 2016. .
China funded another project in Indonesia… a high speed train.
"Normally it takes up to 4 hours, but with the fast train, we hope the journey will be shortened to 1 to 2 hours," says Achmad Rasyad, a resident of Indonesia.
But some Chinese-initiated projects also had a negative side for the beneficiary countries.
In Ecuador, thousands of cracks appeared in the hydro plant, which worried engineers, although China says the hydro plant has been tested by a third agency and is safe.
There was also a complaint with the high-speed train in Indonesia.
"During the construction process, blasting techniques were used that damaged people's houses," says environmental activist Meiki Paendong.
"This really bothers me. If the roof shakes and falls", says resident Heru Sutanto.
As in many infrastructure projects, there will be winners and losers, says expert Malik.
"If you live near a freeway and you don't have a car, or you have a low income and you can't afford to use that railroad, you might value the project in your neighborhood differently," he says.
China watchers say that a decade after the start of the Belt and Road project and the pandemic, Beijing may be recalibrating.
"Many experts call this initiative 2.0 and it is clear to us that the time of easy money with low interest rates and big projects may be over," says Mr. Malik.
"During the last three years, the pandemic was an obstacle to many things. I think the main reason was that China realized that it has many challenges ahead of it and a Beijing that overestimated the capabilities to implement a program that was not very clearly defined or articulated at the beginning," says Hong Zhang, China Public Policy expert.
"China today is the largest lender in the world, because for many loans that were given during the first five years of the initiative, now is the time to return the money. They are realizing that many of the projects are not as commercial as they thought they could be," says Mr. Malik.
"China will continue with infrastructure projects. Perhaps not with large-scale investment in special economic zones such as the Gwadar Port in Pakistan. But they will make a lot of investments in power plants," says expert Min Ye.
"For China, the motive to launch the 'One Belt One Road' program was to create new conditions in a possible conflict with the United States." By making these investments, by showing some kind of activism on these fronts, Beijing will convince the United States and other powers that China is ambitious. China has ambitions to rewrite or reshape the global order. This can intensify conflicts," says expert Hong Zhang.
The "One Belt One Road" initiative has expanded China's influence in the world.
Beijing's influence in the world has changed the way the United States and its allies view China.
Some officials warn that China is a threat and that it is no longer an exporter of cheap goods.
"Europe suddenly realized that China went there and was buying critical strategic infrastructure. This changed their view of China," says Karen Donfried, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.
"I don't think it will help China become a global leader as it has happened with the United States or Great Britain. This is because the Chinese economy continues to have an inward orientation. China's commitment to this initiative depends on the benefits it brings to China," says expert Min Ye.
"Like other great powers, China is keen to expand its global influence. They would like to establish long-term sustainable relationships with the elites of developing countries. They are opening the doors of their universities to foreign students like never before and are very likely to engage in cultural exchanges to win public opinion towards China," says Mr. Malik.
While Beijing paves the way towards an era with China as one of the greatest powers in the world./ VOA