As representatives from more than 100 countries assemble this week in Beijing for the second Belt and Road Cooperation Forum, questions remain as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) nears its sixth year of existence. Is the BRI a top-down plot for building China’s road to global dominance? Or is it simply a means to “promote world peace and development” as offered by Chinese President Xi Jinping?
The BRI’s amorphous definition has complicated the issue – with projects ranging from port development and hydropower plants to facial recognition technology and a “Polar Silk Road,” Xi’s vision has simultaneously become omniscient and blurry. If the BRI can encapsulate so many disparate projects, does the label matter?
Rather than getting bogged down in this debate, it can be helpful to think of the BRI as a new policy environment that encourages Chinese policy banks, firms, and contractors to engage with developing countries with more impetus than before. While there certainly is a security dimension to this engagement, it is important to establish a strong understanding of how the BRI actually incentivizes Chinese entities abroad.
To that end, how successful has Xi Jinping been in creating a BRI-inspired policy environment that encourages Chinese international economic engagement? Analyzing Chinese loans to Africa provides rich data on the subject.
Since the BRI’s announcement in 2013, 37 African countries have signed BRI Memorandums of Understanding (谅解备忘录). Of them, 28 were signed during the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).