The Silk Road conjures images of desert caravans crossing the Great Steppe and adventurers like Marco Polo navigating ancient trading routes connecting China with Europe and Africa. China’s modern-day adaptation, known as the Belt and Road Initiative, aims to revive and extend those routes via networks of upgraded or new railways, ports, pipelines, power grids and highways. President Xi Jinping champions his signature project as a means to spur development, goodwill and economic integration. Critics are wary of an increasingly assertive superpower’s push to spread its influence. Some countries have begun downsizing or canceling projects, even as new deals are being signed.
Xi calls it the “project of the century,” an ambitious drive to grease the wheels of trade with massive new infrastructure projects; Morgan Stanley estimates spending will total $1.3 trillion by 2027. Belt and Road has become so integral to China’s foreign policy strategy that a reference was added to the Communist Party constitution in 2017. At least 157 nations and international organizations have signed up (including more than 60 in 2018), with typical plans including roads and power plants in Pakistan and a high-speed rail line in Indonesia. Yet some partners are weighing the benefits against concerns that projects will leave them saddled with debt and beholden to a foreign government, after Sri Lanka was forced to cede a newly developed port to a Chinese company in return for relief on some of the $8 billion it owed. The newly elected Malaysian government canceled $3 billion worth of pipelines and renegotiated a rail project in 2019, cutting the cost by a third to $11 billion. New leaders in the Maldives are seeking debt relief. Myanmar drastically scaled back a port deal struck under its previous military regime, to $1.3 billion from $7.5 billion. China’s ambitions have become election issues in several countries. The Trump administration has sought to capitalize on the doubts, with Vice President Mike Pence telling Southeast Asian nations the U.S. wouldn’t “offer a constricting belt or a one-way road.”