Britain has made clear its desire to be part of China’s so-called “One Belt One Road” initiative — a cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s vision to boost Chinese investment and influence across Asia, Europe and Africa. But there are concerns about the financial and humanitarian costs of the vast infrastructure projects being undertaken.
British Prime Minister Theresa May recently visited Beijing, leading a delegation of ministers and business leaders in an effort to boost trade after Britain’s European Union exit. The two countries signed deals worth $12.7 billion, and May hailed a “golden era” of Sino-British relations.
Her ambassador to Beijing, Barbara Woodward, earlier outlined Britain’s hopes of cooperating in China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative.
“The first is, we’d like to collaborate on practical projects,” she said. “The second area where we’d like to collaborate with China is bringing some of our city of London financing experience. Because these projects are big projects, particularly infrastructure, they require complex funding mechanisms.”
Too complex, according to some.
Approximately 9,500 kilometers away in Uganda, one of China’s latest “One Belt One Road” projects is nearly complete. Soaring above the muddy swamp between the capital, Kampala, and its airport, the new 51-kilometer (31-mile) four-lane expressway was built by the China Communications Construction Company. Its $580 million cost was met with a loan from Beijing.
Kampala’s mayor, Erias Lukwago, says the price is too high.
“Even these Chinese who are coming here from — even these commercial banks we are borrowing from, Exim Banks and what not, the burden will finally come on our shoulders as Ugandans, our children and grandchildren will have to shoulder this burden which is very, very unfortunate,” Lukwago said.
Through the “One Belt” initiative, China has invested across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and even into eastern Europe.
However, Britain’s decision to get involved should not be taken lightly, warns Barnaby Willitts-King of the Overseas Development Institute.
“Particularly in fragile parts of the world where China’s Belt and Road initiative is going to be running through, there are a lot of potential risks around humanitarian concerns, environmental concerns, that I think focusing on just on a trade deal might overlook,” Willitts-King said. “But it’s also got an advantage. The U.K. has worked and invested in a lot of these countries over the years. And it could actually provide some very practical advice to China.”
Washington has gone further in its criticism of China’s trade and foreign policy.
“China, as it does in emerging markets throughout the world, offers the appearance of an attractive path to development. But in reality, this often involves trading short-term gains for long-term dependency,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday, ahead of his trip to Latin America.
Many emerging economies welcome China’s investments, and the involvement of countries such as Britain. However, there are concerns that mounting debts will cause big problems further down the road.