While the Tory cabinet’s Brexit incompetence and Trump’s trigger-happy Twitter account keep us distracted, China is quietly transforming global politics. The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is an infrastructure project, and so does not have the clickbait appeal of a CAPITALISED DONALD TRUMP RANT or Jacob Rees-Mogg spouting eloquent nonsense. But China’s plan to spend more than $1 trillion on the infrastructure of other nations is the biggest global power-play we have seen in decades.
The British response to this has so far been wholly inadequate. As the Conservative Party implodes over which form of hard Brexit to embrace, ‘Global Britain’ is missing the most important shift in global politics. It is madness that we are leaving the European Union at a moment when global power politics is being transformed. Weakening both our voice and the EU’s voice will only hinder national security, international human rights, workers’ rights and environmental protections. We should stay as close to our European friends as we can.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims to replicate ancient trading routes by building a ‘new Silk Road’. To do this, China is funding infrastructure projects in more than 60 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe. Chinese president Xi Jinping has modestly called his idea the ‘project of the century’, and he may be right: for better or worse.
The sleepy Tanzanian port of Bagamoyo shows the potential benefits of the Belt and Road project. The little-known port will, if the project goes to plan, soon be the largest port in Africa after a $10 billion Chinese loan. Such investment could be transformative in an undeveloped region with huge potential and human capital. Following in the footsteps of China’s rapid development, Belt and Road could transform some of the world’s poorest economies for the better as China share their know-how to develop electricity, roads and railways. No-one can deny that this would be a good thing.
However, we must not be under the illusion that this is Chinese Communist Party altruism, and nor should we sing of the unqualified benefits of Belt and Road. If left unchecked, China could not only establish themselves as the pre-eminent global power through the project, they could do so at the expense of the environment, workers’ rights, human rights and rule of law.
The sinister side of the Belt and Road project is seen in the small African country of Djibouti. Following huge investment in projects such as the $4 billion Ethiopian-Djiboutian electric railway, the Djibouti government paid the Chinese back handsomely by handing China their first military foothold on the East African coastline, overlooking one of the Middle East’s most important trading routes. Meanwhile, the New York Times recently reported that the Sri Lankan government were in such debt to China that they were forced to hand control over a key port to the Chinese government. The transfer gives China control of territory just a few hundred miles off the shores of a rival, India, and a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway.
Belt and Road could be a Trojan horse which makes China the world’s most powerful country, but this is not the only reason to worry. African dictators and the strongmen of the Myanmar military prefer Chinese investment because it comes without any difficult human rights questions – the villagers fleeing armed conflict in Myanmar who were evicted from their property without compensation to make way for a Chinese banana plantation are examples of the victims. It is concerning that China’s response to protests about forced evictions has been to set-up their own international courts which could fundamentally reshape the international rules-based system by removing human rights safeguards.
Similarly, although China have advanced environmental protections at home, the Belt and Road Initiative does not set high enough standards. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has warned that the planned corridors overlap with the range of 265 threatened species including saiga antelopes, tigers and giant pandas. These projects must not be allowed to lead to mass-extinction.
When historians look back at the twenty-first century, it will be ‘Belt and Road’, not Brexit or Trump which is seen as truly momentous. How it is judged will depend on how we respond. If Western nations ignore the project then they may be in for a nasty surprise when species go extinct or more impoverished states default on their loans and provide China with strategic ports. When we voted for Brexit, did we consider that we might be jeopardising our key alliances in security and international affairs at a point when we need them the most? Whatever the outcome of the next few months in UK politics, we must work closely with the EU to make sure that ‘Belt and Road’ is not a cover for ‘colonialism with Chinese characteristics’.
These are new developments which we did not consider in the referendum debate. They provide another reason that we must give the people a say on the final Brexit deal. In a hard Brexit scenario, our security and international position will be compromised and we will be powerless to act in the face of global change, and so we must give people the final say. This is particularly important because the EU are the only voice talking sense on human rights and the environment. They have urged China to include rules on transparency, labour standards, debt sustainability and the environment as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. If the UK take leave of the European Union, their voice will be weakened, and we will be so economically vulnerable that we have to grovel and kowtow to China whatever their demands. ‘Global Britain’ is missing the most important shift in global politics this century.
Britain must have the right to choose between being part of Team Europe as a global rule maker or, through Brexit, to become a China rule taker. This is too big a decision for Government so, for all our futures, let the people decide.
Geraint Davies is the Labour MP for Swansea West