The Belt and Road initiative is an aggressive Chinese development campaign to establish trade infrastructure throughout its neighbouring nations and beyond. It will provide much needed improvement to Africa’s infrastructure, increasing the quality of life for the people while also developing the local economy. Improved transportation links within the continent will support advancement in tourism and trade. The initiative promotes sustainable development and provides learning opportunities for megaprojects in the future. Conversely, China’s belt and road initiative could have extremely damaging consequences for both the partner nations and the world as a whole. The BRI benefits corrupt government officials and China’s geopolitical goals at the expense of their partner’s financial, political and environmental stability.
Benefits for the people of Africa
Ignorance is bliss?
As with most Chinese government policy, the intentions behind the BRI are deliberately unclear, which, under Kantian ethics will fall under a moral grey area. However, Africa’s motivations behind accepting Chinese investment are in the interests of the population. The investment immediately benefits the nation with the improvement of infrastructure which is key for developing countries. The consequences of the investment and the potential for debt and/or political issues in the long term are not considered in deontological ethics. Therefore, under Kantianism, accepting Chinese investment is moral from the people of Africa’s point of view. Do the immediate benefits of the BRI outweigh the potential long-term consequences if China’s intentions turn out to be malevolent?
Improved access to transport infrastructure provided by the BRI will enhance well-being and quality of life. In addition, infrastructural improvements provide a foundation for local economies to develop increasing the accessibility of jobs. For example, in Djibouti and Ethiopia, Chinese investment in ports and business parks will provide 20,000 local jobs in the logistics industry. Another aspect of the BRI is the North Africa Power Corridor (NPAC); this programme is funding power stations which will provide energy as well as jobs to local people. In terms of utilitarianism, the BRI benefits the majority of the African population, therefore, can be ethically justified.
A key focus of the BRI is to establish a culture of sustainable development which has been overlooked globally in the past. To assist in reaching goals set by the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, modern railway infrastructure has been developed to reduce the burden of emissions caused by air cargo transportation. Raising awareness of illegal trade in port customs helps to tackle the current poaching crisis. There has been implementation of coastal zone management in areas surrounding ports, this prevents erosion of beaches as well as restoring and preserving marine and coastal ecosystems. These newly formed practices which are being encouraged by the BRI are parallel to the understanding of virtue-based ethics.
The road to happiness?
Hedonism argues that the pursuit of pleasure is the primary focus of human life. The BRI provides pleasure to the African population by enabling inter-continental travel through newly developed transport links. Furthermore, the construction, maintenance and operation of these lines provide a significant number of job opportunities. The effects of higher employment rate result in improved livelihood among the population, therefore an increase in overall happiness. Could crippling debt and political instability affect the long-term happiness of the African people?
Potential dangers of the Belt and Road Initiative
Lessons from the past
One of the BRI’s most damaging consequences is its exacerbation of misgovernance and corruption in countries already crippled by these issues. Most BRI recipients are in the lower half of the TRACE Bribery Risk Matrix which measures the business bribery risk in 200 countries. 10 out of the world’s 25 riskiest countries are part of the BRI. According to virtue ethics, developed nations have a duty to nurture the integrity of governance and political responsibility throughout the world. A holistic approach must be taken to development – economic/infrastructural growth at the expense of government integrity is unacceptable. Unlike their western counterparts, Chinese lenders do not require their partners to meet strict regulations on corruption, human rights or financial sustainability.
Allegations of corruption plague the BRI, from its involvement in covering up Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal to the construction of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, funds for which ended up in President Rajapaksa’s campaign fund. The port proved so unprofitable that it had to be handed back to China in a debt for equity swap. The nature of the problem is highlighted by the shocking fact that no criminal charges have ever been made in China against its citizens or companies for corrupt practices committed overseas. This behaviour is not justifiable by any ethical frameworks. Does the infrastructural development of the BRI offset the risk of increased corruption and reduced financial stability in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries? This is yet to be seen.
The road to ruin?
Long-run analysis has proven that the economic growth provoked by the BRI will increase environmental degradation in the affected countries. Most BRI recipients have less developed and emerging economies, with less stringent environmental policy. BRI projects that are built through ecologically sensitive and valuable areas will significantly impact biodiversity even if they are constructed under strict environmental regulations.
A clear example is the railway between Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya, that crosses Nairobi’s national park and Tsavo’s National, where for example there had been an increase in elephant deaths due to vehicle and train collisions during the railway’s construction. A recent analysis carried out by the WWF shows that the proposed BRI projects overlap with a range of 265 threatened species including 120 endangered or critically endangered species.
The great migration
A growing debate regarding BRI projects is the mass migration of Chinese citizens to recipient nations. As China’s working population has been growing since the 2000s, it has been struggling to provide enough employment for its citizens. The BRI is a means for Chinese citizens to work abroad. According to the Annual Report on Chinese International Migration, in 2015 there were 60 million Chinese living abroad.
Countries hosting BRI projects worry about the legality of these Chinese immigrants.
Chinese foreign policy expert, Mr Vorasakdi,
mentions that “The problem lies in illegal migrants who stay without proper
visas, work illegally, run businesses illegally without paying taxes or using
nominees to buy land illegally.”; referring to
the growing numbers of Chinese immigrants since the start of the
Singapore-Kunming Rail Network project that connects South-East Asia.
Unfortunately, the African countries targeted by the
BRI proposal are severely affected by corruption, facilitating malpractices and
illegal migration. Consequently, African citizens are likely to suffer the same
fate as those throughout south-east Asia.