The pursuit of ‘win-wins’ along the Belt and Road

27 August 2021 Robert Swaine and Leon Yu Liang The pursuit of ‘win-wins’ along the Belt and Road

As the Belt and Road Initiative projects aim to become fully sustainable, we look at how these projects are perceived in three countries and how to ensure Chinese investments can contribute positively towards long-term peace and security.

On 23 June 2021, the week after the G7 declared its 'green alternative' to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a global platform at the heart of China’s international development co-operation – China held a high-level meeting on Belt and Road Cooperation in the Asia Pacific Region to initiate the ‘Partnership for Green Development’. At the event, China’s President Xi Jinping emphasised how Chinese investment as part of the BRI will continue to “work towards the goals of high standards, sustainability, and working for the benefit of the people”. On infrastructure development in particular, the Partnership for Green Development proposes to ’strengthen projects’ climate and environmental risk assessment, drawing on internationally recognised standards and best practices, as well as encourage companies to assume social responsibilities and protect the local environment’. Yet, while the rhetoric at the highest levels seems to be moving in the right direction, the reality of Chinese investments - and there are a vast number around the globe including in countries affected by conflict - often falls short of the aspiration.

Taking stock

Global market analysts and commentators, including those associated with the World Economic Forum, regularly urge China to introduce binding measures to strengthen social responsibility as existing voluntary guidelines are not proving strong enough to enforce responsible investment overseas. This is important, as there are risks that BRI projects can inadvertently become a source of insecurity and violence and Chinese companies responsible for project delivery, especially in conflict-affected countries where access to resources may be contested, need the support of surrounding communities as well as the national government and local authorities to minimise any risk of exacerbating or creating tensions. Ensuring that BRI project plans and delivery partners operate to the highest standards, in line with the UN sustainable development goals and the latest environmental, social and governance guidance, is a crucial first step.

However, as we explore in a new Saferworld report, while many local people acknowledge the potential economic benefits that BRI investment can bring with it, when specific infrastructure projects are announced, investors often find that they lack widespread public support. Support further diminishes when there is a perception – true or not – that BRI projects negatively impact the lives of people and communities. For example, in Kyrgyzstan we heard how Chinese investors have contended with high-profile controversies, including corrupt practices. The result has been widespread public dissatisfaction and mistrust – not just towards investments but towards China’s influence in the country more broadly. Benefits felt by some communities in terms of jobs and training have been offset by those who feel left out and by the steady stream of scandals and grievances over land, the environment and labour practices.

Meanwhile, our research in Myanmar shows that concerns over Chinese influence and poor business practice had tarnished public trust long before the events of 1 February 2021, when the armed forces seized power. Since then, anti-Chinese sentiment across the country fuelled by the perception that China approved the military takeover, has led to attacks on Chinese investments. If Chinese investors attempt to move ahead with BRI projects under the current conditions, their investments will face even higher risks, as further engagement between the Chinese business community and the military-led State Administrative Council will inevitably fuel tensions, leading to more violence.

In Uganda, we heard how the BRI has brought essential new infrastructure through projects such as the Karuma hydropower dam, as well as employment and training opportunities for Ugandans. However, community grievances associated with BRI projects have come about as a result of land grabs and disputes, a lack of labour rights and protections, and detrimental impacts on the environment and local biodiversity – impacts which predominantly affect women’s livelihoods.

Chinese companies and national and local authorities should work with civil society and communities to ensure that BRI projects in conflict-affected contexts are planned and delivered in ways that avoid unintentionally contributing to internal conflicts or tensions and contribute instead positively towards long-term peace and security. Only when social responsibility is being taken seriously can projects become truly sustainable and mutually beneficial for all parties concerned.

Recommendations for guiding ‘win-wins’

Across three countries, the findings of our research point towards the need to build forward-looking relationships that better reflect people’s opinions and needs. Among other recommendations, national development plans should reflect commitments made to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and be designed and implemented in consultation with communities and civil society. Chinese investors should take gender and conflict sensitivity more seriously, making use of available tools and expertise to gain deeper insights into the likely impact their investments will have. Once they better understand their impact on local conflict dynamics and how such impacts are experienced differently by women, men, girls and boys, they should make sure that effective measures to prevent or mitigate tensions or potential negative impacts on people are included in the design and delivery of all projects. Issues related to land, labour and the environment should urgently be addressed in accordance with existing national laws and customs to prevent the risk of unrest and potential violence.

While perception studies like this do not provide a complete picture of the situation in each country, they give insights about community concerns and identify issues for further investigation. The case studies represent three very different countries and contexts, each with its own different programmes of Chinese investment and unique relationships with China. Conclusions and recommendations are therefore mainly country-specific, and can be used to help address problems and improve the overall benefits of BRI programmes in each country by learning lessons from the trends and challenges. One core action called upon by the China-led Initiative for Belt & Road Partnership on Green Development is to foster economic, social and environmental development in a balanced and integrated manner in order to achieve the 2030 SDG goals. Most of its success will depend on achieving mutual benefits for both local communities and Chinese businesses and ensuring that conflict and gender sensitivity are effectively operationalised and become an integral and mandatory component of doing business.

Photo: Bala Min Htin Bridge in Myitkyina, Kachine State is an important trade route between China and Myanmar. (Photo credit: Aung Naing Soe/Saferworld).