The ambitious goal of the Chinese One Belt One Road project is to create a modern day “silk road”, creating new economic routes from China to Europe and Africa, across the Eurasia and the Indian Ocean. While President Xi Jinping declared it a “win-win” scenario when he first announced his plans to create a “Silk Road Economic Belt” while on a state visit to Kazakhstan in 2013, six years later the results and receptions are mixed.
Currently. the Belt and Road Initiative can boast of having 124 countries and 29 international organizations signed on as participants. However, there is an growing number of instances in Southeast and Southern Asia where Chinese investment plays a substantial part in these nations’ elections.
In Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa was desperate to secure financing for an ambitious port project. Multiple feasibility studies had demonstrated the port was likely to be a financial failure, and so traditional lenders, such as India, stayed away. However, the Chinese government and state-run construction companies were more than happy to provide the funds and loans necessary to complete the port. In 2015, President Rajapaksa lost the election to his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena tapped into a growing sense of discontent amongst Sri Lankans, unhappy with the massive debt President Rajapaksa was bringing upon the country. Sirisena often compared Chinese investment to colonialism, which inspired many to vote against the President, who was seen as being very close to China.
While perhaps not of as great geostrategic importance as Sri Lanka, the loss of the Maldives provided a significant blow to Chinese aspirations in the region and to the stature of the BRI project as a whole. Under President Yameen, the Maldives shifted away towards its traditional ally, India, and moved closer into the Chinese camp, as the Chinese were seeking to increase their presence in the Indian Ocean. A few months after his defeat, Mr. Yameen was charged with grand corruption, money-laundering, and theft. While it is not clear that these charges are directly linked to Chinese investments, the Maldives’ new finance minister, Ibrahim Ameer, told reporters that the former government “knew what they were doing, getting kickbacks from contractors…That’s why the contract prices were too high”. New President Ibrahim Solih also accused the previous government of undertaking “reckless development projects” for political gains. Statements like these certainly do not help perceptions that Chinese investment with the BRI projection carries with it strong possibility for corruption. With Solih’s party winning a landslide victory in the April 6th parliamentary elections, there seems to be a popular mandate for his corruption investigations.
A similar story has played out in South East Asia as well. In Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad campaigned on promises to rein in China’s influence, which was seen by many as ballooning out of control under Prime Minister Najib Razak. Under Najib, Malaysia signed onto an estimated $34 billion worth of infrastructure projects, such as ports and rail lines. Upon winning the election, Prime Minister Mohamad halted construction on a multi-billion dollar rail line, citing that the costs were far higher than previous estimates, and a new deal would need to be renegotiated.
Merely two years ago, Indonesian President Joko Widodo stood next to Xi Jinping to celebrate the Belt and Road Initiative. However, now that he is running for reelection, he and his campaign are taking steps to distance himself from Beijing. His political rival, Prabowo Subianto, has been attacking the President’s alleged ties to Beijing. Anwita Basu, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said that “anti-China rhetoric has been on the rise” during the campaigning period. The criticisms levied towards Chinese investment are echoed across the region: budget overruns, lack of transparency, and fears of Chinese desires for political influence. If President Xi Jinping wishes for his modern day Silk Road dream to become a reality, he will have to change the growing perception that Chinese investment is not as attractive as it once was.