The Joint Communiqué issued at the end of the second summit of the leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing demonstrated the members’ desire for greater connectivity and enhanced cooperation for mutual benefits and all-round economic and social growth. The Forum Round table called by the Chinese President Xi Jinping was attended by 37 heads of states and governments. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde besides representatives from many countries and international organizations also attended the meet. India, concerned over the $60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a flagship project of China’s Belt & Road Initiative, which passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir, violating India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, skipped the second BRF meet also as it boycotted the first one held in May 2017 for the same reasons.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, Nepal President Bidhya Devi Bhandari and Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi attended the meet while other South Asian nations and many other countries including Japan, South Korea, UK, France, Germany, Spain and the European Union sent their representatives.
The United States of America is the fiercest critic of the Chinese initiative alleging that its predatory financing leaves smaller countries in heavy debt. After the Hambantota port take over on 99-year lease by China on Sri Lanka’s failure to repay the debt, concerns are growing among nations about the Chinese initiative, despite President Xi allaying their fears at the inaugural session of the second BRF meet. More and more countries are now sceptical about China short-listing its own companies for third country projects under the BRI and the increasing Chinese influence in the internal affairs of participating smaller nations. Moreover, they fear that the Chinese projects are not creating enough employment and economic upliftment in their countries. For these reasons, many Chinese projects are scrapped or renegotiated.
Nepal had cancelled the 1200 MW Burhi Gandaki Hydropower project deal with China’s state owned Gezhouba Group Corporation as the company tried to renegotiate the agreement. Last year, the West Seti project awarded to China’s Three Georges Corporation for setting up hydropower project was also scrapped, hitting hard Beijing’s ambitious infrastructure plans in Nepal. But both the countries are going ahead with the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity network. Prefeasibility study of the Kerung-Kathmandu-Pokhra railway and beyond up to the Buddhist tourist pilgrimage Centre of Lumbini has already been completed. The two countries also signed a protocol to operationalize the Transit and Transportation Agreement signed in 2016 during the first visit to China by Nepal’s Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli. Nepali traders would now be able to use four Chinese sea ports and three dry ports, giving them an alternative to Indian ports of Haldia and Visakhapatnam for their third country trade.
Pakistan also recently withdrew its 14 billion dollar Diamer-Bhasha Dam project from the CPEC framework under the BRI after China placed harsh conditions, including ownership of the project on failure of debt repayment. The dam was to be constructed on the Indus River in the Pak occupied Kashmir. But Islamabad signed an agreement in the field of agriculture and food security with China on the sidelines of the second BRF meet. A cooperation plan on China Myanmar Economic Corridor was also signed but Myanmar is said to be renegotiating ways to scale down cost of building deep sea water port in the country’s Western Rakhine state with Chinese assistance.
Malaysia and Singapore have also deferred their $ 13.8 billion high-speed rail project linking Kuala Lumpur with Singapore till 31st May 2020 to cut debt cost.
Though the second Belt and Roads Forum meet has been described as successful; many of the infrastructure projects linking Asia, Europe and Africa have drawn criticism that some of the smaller nations could run into unsustainable debts.
Script: Rattan Saldi, Political Commentator