On China’s New Silk Road, Democracy Pays A Toll – Foreign Policy
To understand how the #Belt_and_Road Initiative can threaten human rights and good governance, consider first how its projects are financed.To understand how the Belt and Road Initiative can threaten human rights and good governance, consider first how its projects are financed. Thus far, China has largely favored loans over grants. It is not a member of the Paris Club of major creditor nations, and it has shown little inclination to adhere to internationally recognized norms of debt sustainability, such as the sovereign lending principles issued by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. At the same time, many of the recipient countries participating in the project lack the capability to assess the long-term financial consequences of China’s loans — or they may simply accept them, assuming the bills will come due on a future government’s watch.
Ballooning, unsustainable debt is the predictable result. Sri Lanka, where in 2017 some 95 percent of government revenue went to debt repayment, represents the best-known example of Belt and Road’s negative impact on a country’s balance sheet. But Sri Lanka is only the most prominent case; a recent study by the Center for Global Development identified eight countries — Djibouti, the Maldives, Laos, Montenegro, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan — that are at particular risk of debt distress due to future Belt and Road-related financing.
China’s planned development of a “#new_digital_Silk_Road ” has received comparatively less attention than other elements of the initiative but is equally troubling. China’s digital blueprint seeks to promote information technology connectivity across the Indian Ocean rim and Eurasia through new fiber optic lines, undersea cables, cloud computing capacity, and even artificial intelligence research centers. If realized, this ambitious vision will serve to export elements of Beijing’s surveillance regime. Indeed, Chinese technology companies already have a track record of aiding repressive governments. In Ethiopia, likely prior to the advent of Belt and Road, the Washington Post reports that China’s ZTE Corporation “sold technology and provided training to monitor mobile phones and Internet activity.” Today, Chinese tech giant Huawei is partnering with the government of Kenya to construct “safe cities” that leverage thousands of surveillance cameras feeding data into a public security cloud “to keep an eye on what is going on generally” according to the company’s promotional materials. Not all elements of China’s domestic surveillance regime are exportable, but as the “New Digital Silk Road” takes shape, the public and online spaces of countries along it will become less free.
States financially beholden to China will become less willing to call out Beijing’s domestic human rights abuses, for instance, and less eager to object to its foreign-policy practices. This dynamic is already playing out within the European Union. In mid-2017, for the first time, the EU failed to issue a joint condemnation of China at the U.N. Human Rights Council. Greece, which had recently received a massive influx of Chinese investment into its Port of Piraeus, scuttled the EU statement.