China's Belt and Road project: A decade of big projects and bigger debts

China's billion-dollar Belt and Road project is one of President Xi Jinping's signature policies aimed at increasing Chinese influence.

But a decade on from its inception, ITV News reports on the toll it has had on communities and the environment

The initial ambition of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) sounded almost whimsical.

It was launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013 in Kazakhstan and Indonesia with the aim of reviving old Silk Road trade routes over land and at sea.

A decade on and there are more than 3,000 BRI projects across five continents, including the North and South pole regions.

Chinese State companies have won contracts to build railways, roads, ports, pipelines, properties and power plants worth more than two trillion dollars.

Rainforests in Malaysia have been sacrificed for the next stage of China's Belt and Road project. Credit: ITV News

It has also expanded to include a ‘Digital Silk Road’ which has primarily involved the Chinese firm Huawei winning 5G contracts in at least 70 countries.

From China there are now trainlines stretching out like tentacles across Central Asia into Europe and down into Southeast Asia.

One of the newest lines to open carves through the centre of Laos from its border with China, right down to the capital Vientiane cutting the journey time for people and freight from days, to just hours.

And Indonesia now has its first high-speed railway track connecting the highly populated cities of Jakarta and Bandung.

The ECRL has become Malaysia's most expensive infrastructure project ever and the bill is being paid via a loan from China's government. Credit: ITV News

We travelled to Malaysia which will soon join the growing train club, with a 400-mile long East Coast Rail Line (ECRL) which will link its underdeveloped east with the capital in the west.

The Chinese vision is for the ECRL to connect to a rail line running through Thailand which would in turn link into the Laos stretch, but political turmoil in Bangkok, the pandemic, and contract negotiations over the cost and which currency to use, have delayed the start of China’s inroads across Thai territory.

In Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast there is a cluster of BRI projects, and the ECRL will have one of its main stops next to the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park.

When we sent up our drone to film the area we not only saw how vast it has become but the harsh lines where the development has cut into the forest.

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An activist we spoke to said although the ECRL has mainly followed the path of existing motorways there are various sections where it has destroyed forest and the habitat of species, including the prized Malayan tiger and elephants.

Recently there have been cases of these already endangered animals entering village communities and one man was reportedly killed by a displaced tiger.

While we were filming, we saw a family of dusky leaf monkeys high up in the trees next to a section of the train track which cuts right through their habitat.

With lorries noisily trundling past and diggers operating all day, their environment has been sadly disturbed.

An hour up the coast in Cherating, we met Rizali Awang who is also facing having his home destroyed.

Rizali Awang was given just 30 days to leave his home. Credit: ITV News

He and his neighbours have received eviction notices, giving them thirty days to move out of an area which will soon become an access road for one section of the new train line.

He told us he has nothing against the project itself but he’s angry at the short notice and the poor compensation he will be given to move his home and the small plantation business he runs on the property.

Chinese contractors have faced opposition and even protests in various countries where BRI projects have threatened to destroy indigenous communities, disrupting homes and livelihoods.

A protest directed as much at the Chinese builders as the local government who granted the BRI contract.

President Xi launched the BRI 10 years ago to revive old silk road trade links. Credit: ITV News

Environmental and stakeholder impact reports, if carried out, are not made public, and contracts are negotiated without a bidding process.

In several developing nations, including Malaysia, these opaque deals have become mired in local corruption and led to accusations of debt diplomacy.

The Malaysia government will be paying off the ECRL for many decades to come.

Belt and Road projects are paid for by loans from China.

It helps plan and build the agreed infrastructure project and the host country will then use the loan to pay Chinese contractors to carry out the work.

When Sri Lanka fell behind with its payments for a Chinese built port in 2017, China obtained a 99-year lease on the port as part of a debt renegotiation deal.

That case has served as a warning for other countries but still there are several nations including Argentina, Kenya, Pakistan and even Montenegro who have become hugely indebted to China.

Many countries have been forced to use tax-raising revenue to pay back their BRI loans meaning money that should be going towards schools, food or fuel, is being used to service a Chinese debt.

Kenya's government needed an international bailout to help pay its multi-million pound loans. Credit: ITV News

In Kenya the government had to get an international bailout to help repay its multi-million-pound loans, and the success of its Chinese built train line remains in question.

In Europe, BRI investments have included the Piraeus Port in Greece, which was updated and expanded and is now 67% owned by Chinas COSCO.

The Portuguese port of Sines has also benefitted from BRI money. Meanwhile, a railway link linking Budapest and Belgrade has stalled amid concerns over costs and safety standards.

Part of the attraction of dealing with China, is also part of the problem. Compared to the US or Western investors, the Chinese Government does not ask too many questions, and is happy to deal with any form of government.

That has got Chinese investors mired in several controversies in Asia and Africa where lucrative contracts have been exploited by political parties or local businessmen seeking to profit.

However, the Malaysian government like many others has been seduced by the scale and speed with which Chinese developers can deliver mega infrastructure projects.

And with Chinese infrastructure comes Chinese influence, and the BRI is creating a network of developments which aim to give the Communist Party a strategic foothold, particularly in emerging economies, that will allow it to reorganise global supply chains, and global order.

On the ground in Malaysia, the overwhelming view we heard was that the rail project wasn’t for them, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The overwhelming view in Malaysia was that the project wasn't necessarily for them, but also wasn't a bad thing. Credit: ITV News

We spoke to a group of people living in the shadow of an elevated section of the line. It hasn’t brought jobs or change to their village, but it was clear that development was still considered progress, even if they won’t be the ones to benefit.

Despite the controversies they have faced, BRI projects have helped position China as the champion of the developing world.

The number of world leaders and global officials arriving in Beijing for the 10th Anniversary summit of the Belt and Road this week will show just how far reaching the initiative, and President Xi’s influence has become.

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