From a stalled Indonesian rail project to an insurgency-threatened economic corridor in Pakistan, China’s push to revive Silk Road trade routes is running into problems that risk tarnishing the economic crown jewel of Xi Jinping’s presidency.
The Belt and Road initiative, unveiled by Xi in 2013, envisages linking China with Africa, Asia and Europe through a network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks.
Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, has pushed the infrastructure drive that is central to his goal of extending Beijing’s economic and geopolitical clout. The initiative was enshrined in the Communist Party’s Constitution at its five-yearly congress last month, and some estimates say more than US$1 trillion has been pledged to projects proposed in some 65 countries.
But on the ground, it has run into problems.
Projects traverse insurgency-hit areas, dictatorships and chaotic democracies, and face resistance from both corrupt politicians and local villagers.
“Building infrastructure across countries like these is very complicated,” says Murray Hiebert from Washington think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who has studied some of the projects in Southeast Asia. “You’ve got land issues, you have to hammer out funding agreements, you have to hammer out technological issues.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, however, insists the initiative was “moving forward smoothly”.
Beijing won the contract to build Indonesia’s first high-speed railway in September 2015, but more than two years later, work has barely started on the route from Jakarta to the city of Bandung.
A recent visit to Walini, where President Joko Widodo broke ground on the train line in January last year, found excavators flattening land but no track laid for the train, which is meant to start operating in 2019.
“The first year after the ground-breaking ceremony, I did not see any progress at all,” food-stall owner Neng Sri, from nearby Mandala Mukti village, told Agence France-Presse.
The central problem has been persuading villagers to leave their land on the proposed route, which is often an issue in the chaotic, freewheeling democracy.
The Indonesian Transport Ministry declined to give an update on the project, and the consortium of Chinese and Indonesian companies building the line did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
On another planned high-speed line from southern China to Singapore, the Thai stretch of the railway was delayed by tussles over financing and protective labour regulations. It was only in July that the military government finally approved US$5.2 billion to start construction.
Work is under way on the 415km part of the line in Laos, a staunch ally of Beijing. But, even there, the project has stoked controversy due to its huge price tag – at $5.8 billion, roughly half the country’s 2015 gross domestic product – and the question of how much deeply poor Laos will gain from the project.
There have been concerns in many countries about how much they will benefit from Belt and Road initiatives.
Gains for China, such as access to key markets and tackling overcapacity in domestic industries, are often more obvious than those for their partners.
Said villager Sri, who lives next to the Indonesian rail project: “The high-speed train... is only for super-busy people who think time is money. We are not rushing to go anywhere.”