In a short story called ‘The Chinese Road’ written in the 1970s by the Yemeni-Ethiopian Mohammad Abdul-Wali, a Yemeni man befriends a Chinese construction worker on the new road from the port of Hodeida on the Red Sea, ‘cutting through the mountain’, to the capital, Sanaa, more than two hundred kilometres away. Abdul-Wali describes the competent and friendly Chinese labourers who live in tents with the Yemenis. They all learn Arabic, unlike an earlier group of foreigners: the British, sweaty and florid, with their colony in Aden, who remained aloof from the locals, and departed ‘leaving nothing behind but the hatred of [the] people’. The Chinese construction workers, by contrast, leave a lasting legacy.
The completion of the first paved road in Yemen in 1961 was commemorated in a series of stamps that also celebrated the building of a modern port in Hodeida with the help of Soviet engineers. By that point 1100 Chinese construction workers and engineers were building roads in Yemen. Work on the Sanaa-Hodeida road had begun in 1959, the same year China started blasting through the Himalayas to build the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan. In 1967, China completed the sky-high ‘friendship road’ between Lhasa and Kathmandu, and between 1970 and 1975 it built a railway between Tanzania and Zambia. Chinese railway experts were remembered respectfully by their local counterparts for passing on their skills.
These postcolonial Chinese construction programmes were intended to be different from the European schemes of the preceding decades, which were launched by colonial powers to enable the transport of extracted raw materials. As the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney wrote in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), roads and railways
were not constructed in the colonial period so that Africans could visit their friends. More important still, they were not laid down to facilitate internal trade in African commodities. There were no roads connecting different colonies and different parts of the same colony in a manner that made sense with regard to Africa’s needs and development. All roads and railways led down to the sea.
In the exuberant but brief period immediately after decolonisation most postcolonial states looked to the Soviet Union or China to help with industrialisation and infrastructure, often trying to play these countries off against the US and Europe in order to secure better deals with fewer strings attached. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet and Chinese politics of aid resulted in the construction of hydroelectric dams, steel mills, cement factories, ports and airports, as well as road and rail networks across Asia and Africa. There were more direct forms of aid too. After the Bandung Conference’s call in 1955 for Afro-Asian solidarity, China granted $4.7 million in hard currency to Egypt just as Britain, France and Israel were attacking it over the Suez Canal. China extended credit to a number of recently independent African states – Ghana, Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Guinea – and gave millions to Nepal, Ceylon (soon to become Sri Lanka), Indonesia and Cambodia. It also provided military aid and armaments to anticolonial guerrilla groups across Asia, Africa and Latin America.
At the same time, the US Army Corps of Engineers was building roads, communication systems, airports and other infrastructure in Libya, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These were always designed to meet US military and strategic needs, often connecting US bases to major transport facilities. In the 1970s I lived in Mashhad in northern Iran, in a neighbourhood next to the recently opened Cento Road. The road was funded by the Central Treaty Organisation, formed in 1955 and modelled after Nato. Its founding members were Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and the UK, with the US pulling the strings in the hope of preventing southward Soviet expansion. The US was happy to fund transport routes because, as the acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Curtis LeMay, put it in 1962, ‘inadequacies of road and rail facilities in Iran’ limited the ability of the US military to travel easily near Iran’s border with the Soviet Union. We understood, as other collateral beneficiaries of such roads did, that the US never built a road unless its forces might one day travel along it.
There is a temptation in Washington policy cliques to see China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a continuation of Cold War politics. The BRI, which was launched with great fanfare by Xi Jinping in 2013, has two components. On land, multiple train routes are planned to cross the Eurasian landmass via Central Asia, Russia and Iran, with termini in Singapore, Isfahan and Budapest, from where it would connect to the railways of Western Europe. The maritime branch wraps around South-East and South Asia and from there extends to East Africa or through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean.
The numerous road, rail, port and airport projects that form the spine of these new Silk Roads are certainly strategic vectors of alliance like their mid-20th-century counterparts, but there is much less of the discourse of South-South solidarity that emerged out of Bandung, and more of an economic calculation. The China of the 1950s and 1960s was very different from the China of the 21st century. In 1959, when work began on the Karakoram and Hodeida-Sanaa highways, China had a GDP of $55 billion and was in the throes of famine. In 2013, when the BRI was announced (initially under the name One Belt, One Road), its GDP approached $9.5 trillion. In real terms, the Chinese economy grew twentyfold over that half-century.
After China opened up to foreign direct investment in the 1970s, first from Japan and later from Europe and North America, it quickly became the world’s factory. In the last decade of the 20th century, numerous new manufacturing centres grew up along its coasts. Its ports expanded in number and capacity to receive raw materials – coal, oil, ore, bauxite, copper – from all over the globe, and to dispatch in turn huge container ships laden with manufactured goods. By the early 2000s, Chinese ports dominated every top-twenty maritime list.
China’s response to the global crisis of capital in 2008 was a massive stimulus programme. Its central planners encouraged the movement of capital inland and used the state-owned banking system to cultivate manufacturing centres along China’s long land borders with South-East, South and Central Asian states. They also invested in extensive land transport infrastructures, accumulating expertise and manufacturing capacity in railway technologies, which are now being deployed in building the rail components of the BRI. This alternation between mobile capital and its immobilisation in infrastructure – a ‘spatial fix’, in the words of the geographer David Harvey – is one progenitor of Xi’s grand initiative. China’s treatment by the US is another.
In October 2011, Obama’s then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced the birth of ‘America’s Pacific Century’ in an article for Foreign Policy, and boasted that the Asia-Pacific region was ‘eager for our leadership and our business’. Although the Clinton manifesto made gestures to allay China’s fear of a new Cold War, only a few months later the Pentagon issued Defence Strategic Guidance which included a ‘pivot to Asia’. To the jubilation of armchair and actual generals, the strategy document declared the end of the boots-on-the-ground counterinsurgency era and warned of ‘the growth of China’s military power’. The document’s familiar jargon – it called for ‘credible deterrence’ and the need to ‘project power despite anti-access/area denial challenges’ – was followed up with action in the region: new military exercises with Japan, the decision to base US Marines in Australia, arms sales to the Philippines, and a range of other activities. All this built on the Clinton and Bush administrations’ placement of additional naval and air weapons systems in Japan and Guam, the deployment of another aircraft carrier to the Pacific and the construction of a naval base in Singapore.
Trump’s trade wars against China and his unabashedly racist response to Covid showed a US itching for a revival of Cold War rivalries. In his first days in office Biden declared that the term ‘China virus’ would be expunged from federal documents, but while criticising Trump’s approach, Biden’s new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said that the former president ‘was right in taking a tougher approach to China’; the new secretary of commerce, Gina Raimondo, has said that she will continue Trump’s policy, using ‘the full toolkit at my disposal … to protect America and our networks from Chinese interference’. Such attitudes have become firmly entrenched among US policymakers.
All this means we should be grateful that a long-established Washington think-tanker like Jonathan Hillman is downplaying the threat of China’s projects to US interests. Hillman is a senior fellow at the centre-right Centre for Strategic and International Studies. His research for The Emperor’s New Road included visiting a number of countries where BRI projects are underway in order to measure the gap between promise and reality. He aspires to a tone of gravity even when his fieldwork largely consists in finding out whether the trains run on time. The effect is disconcerting: in places, his reports read like stories from a Lonely Planet travel guide – trains are missed, there are troubles with Russian border guards, ferries don’t depart from their advertised docks.
Predictably, the book’s cover has a red star on it, and there are further clichés inside: from the travels of Marco Polo, to Central Asian Muslims who both pray to Allah and drink vodka, to the multiple urban centres branded ‘the new Dubai’. He sees China as undergoing an ‘education as a rising power’; it is in need of instruction, presumably from more experienced imperialists. But the imperialists that should serve as paragons and warnings, he thinks, are France and Britain, not the US. The Persian kings Xerxes and Darius are mentioned several times, but the pivot to Asia is not. He portrays the US as a well-meaning, bumbling giant whose best efforts are undermined by its being too nice, too concerned with democratic institutions, arriving too late on the scene in places like Pakistan, not understanding the locals, and not spending enough dollars to compete properly with China. On the ‘dangers’ of China to US national interests, Hillman is equivocal. While the overall message of the book is that the Chinese are too incompetent and their Asian clients too venal to endanger US ambitions in these contested spaces, we nevertheless hear about violent smuggling gangs in the port of Piraeus, Huawei’s supernatural reach, the Chinese military presence in the South China Sea, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia, and the corrupting influence of Chinese money wherever BRI projects are found.
Where Chinese infrastructure projects seem to have failed, Hillman tends to blame corruption and the machinations of local actors. He contends that it was a lack of principles and foresight on the part of Djiboutian politicians that led them in 2018 to invite the Chinese to take over the container terminal of Doraleh after they had seized control of it from the Dubai-based company DP World, which had held the concession. There is nothing here about DP World’s predatory practices in Indian Ocean ports, which resulted, for example, in Yemen buying back the concession for the port of Aden (only for it to be decimated by the Saudi-Emirati coalition’s war on Yemen). Hillman portrays China’s expansion in Piraeus as the Asian hordes at the gates of Europe, but doesn’t tell us that the European troika’s forcible privatisation of Greek state enterprises in the wake of the financial crisis offered the port on a platter to China’s Cosco Shipping. (During the same fire sale, airports on many Greek islands were sold to the German airport management company Fraport AG.)
Belt and Road investments are leading to the development of infrastructure long denied to African and Asian countries. China lends money on favourable terms to its allies, including states that otherwise fail to secure such loans as a result of unforgiving US sanctions. As well as investing in roads, railways and ports, China now manufactures technologies – especially in the field of telecommunications – that challenge US and European hegemony. Its less costly products are easier for countries of the global South to afford. And China’s ‘no interference’ policy means that it has largely avoided the crude regime-change politics emanating from Washington; its military expenditure is still only a third of America’s, and much lower still as a percentage of GDP. China is now at the centre of global capitalism. No longer economically peripheral and with no pretence of being a communist state, China uses its BRI projects to consolidate and expand capitalism ‘with Chinese characteristics’.
Data from Boston University’s Global Development Policy Centre show that between 2008 and 2019, China extended overseas development credit of $462 billion, only slightly less than the $467 billion provided by the World Bank in the same period. The money advanced by the China Development Bank and the Export Import Bank of China reached a peak in 2016, half of which was spent on infrastructure projects. Ten countries – including Venezuela, Pakistan, Russia, Angola, Brazil, Ecuador and Iran – received the lion’s share of the loans.
The terms under which these loans have been offered, and their economic effects, have differed from place to place. To finance development in the Pakistani port of Gwadar, China offered loans at zero interest, perhaps because of Pakistan’s strategic importance. In Sri Lanka, it signed a 99-year lease on the port of Hambantota, in which it has a 70 per cent stake. Hillman isn’t alone in regarding the Hambantota concession as a coercive debt-equity swap: China gets control of the port in return for forgiving some of Sri Lanka’s debt. But the story is more complicated. In 2016, Sri Lanka owed financiers $65 billion, $8 billion of which was owed to China. But 75 per cent of the debt was in government bonds bought up primarily by funds in the US, and much of that debt was accrued not to build infrastructure but to finance the counterinsurgency war against the Tamil Tigers. Ports, airports and other facilities that were built were the vanity projects of the then president, Mahinda Rajapaksa: they were badly situated, poorly designed and overpriced. The money from China intended for the port concession went instead to service interest payments. Rajapaksa, who was booted out of office largely because of the strength of popular feeling against the port, found his way back to power as prime minister in his brother Gotabaya’s administration. The reduction in China’s financing of projects in 2016 was perhaps influenced by its embarrassment over Sri Lanka.
Leaked documents show that, in 2013, Kenya used the port of Mombasa as security on loans taken out with China’s Exim Bank to finance the construction of a railway from Mombasa to Nairobi, with a branch – some of it as yet unbuilt – to the Rift Valley and the Ugandan border, a project that involved murky deals between different factions of the Kenyan elite. The loans Kenya has received from China amount to nearly $5 billion. Given that the railway is yet to turn a profit, Kenya may be forced to cede the port to China. More likely, China will renegotiate the debt, extending the repayment schedule.
Transport infrastructure has historically served to bind fractious peripheral territories to the centre. America’s Pacific Railroad, built in the 1860s, allowed businesses protected by US government troops to expand into Indigenous territories in the West. Where infrastructure goes, commerce follows – but so, often, does war. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which terminates at Gwadar on the Gulf of Oman, crosses Balochistan, where the Pakistani state has for decades disappeared or assassinated activists and waged a brutal war of pacification against those fighting for the region’s autonomy. In Myanmar, the corridor passes through Shan and Rakhine states, where counterinsurgency measures have led to mass killings and the expulsion of minority communities. This year the Shanghai International Port Group will take over the running of the port of Haifa, with the full co-operation of Israel’s security state. In China itself, the BRI train routes across Central Asia pass through Xinjiang, where millions of Uighurs are interned in re-education camps and forced to work in textile and electronics factories.
Although China has a large number of citizens working overseas, it has just one military base beyond its own periphery, in Djibouti. (The former French colony also hosts military personnel from France, the US, Italy, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.) China has relied on private security firms to protect personnel and facilities in Africa and Asia. Chinese logistics firms in East Africa or South-East Asia can secure the assistance of, among others, the Frontier Services Group, a Hong Kong-based company backed by the Chinese state-owned CITIC Group, with offices in Kenya and Dubai. The founder and chairman of Frontier Services is Erik Prince, whose firm of mercenaries, Blackwater, became notorious for killing civilians in Iraq. Frontier Services is rumoured to have set up training camps in Xinjiang and has acted for Chinese firms working in the oilfields of South Sudan and Mozambique, the jade trade in Myanmar, aviation in Kenya and coltan mining in Congo.
Most accounts of the BRI focus on its geopolitics or geoeconomics. But large infrastructure projects have wider ramifications: lives are affected, connections forged and knowledge circulated. Chinese workers have a long history in Africa and Asia, going back well before the postcolonial period. At the end of the 19th century, the British Empire relied on Chinese labour to keep many of its mines and plantations going. From the 1850s onwards, Chinese workers toiled in South African gold and diamond mines, tapped rubber and extracted tin in Malaya, harvested Cuban sugar plantations, traded and farmed in Java and Sumatra, extracted guano on islets off the coast of Peru, and prospected for gold and built railroads in the US and Canada. Chinese merchants were, and still are, everywhere in the Indian Ocean basin. By the mid 2oth century, China was spreading its engineering knowhow across Asia and Africa and making its presence felt through sheer force of numbers. As Abdul-Wali wrote in ‘The Chinese Road’, many thousands of Chinese workers lived with and trained local labourers.
The Belt and Road Initiative has had a more mixed reception. Praise for its transformative effects is met by criticism of its meagre impact on local capacity building and knowledge transfer. Authorities in areas where projects are in progress often disagree with central administrations over the implementation and efficiency of the schemes. Unless the BRI host countries have the capacity to negotiate, the percentage of local workers on many construction sites is relatively small, relationships are hierarchical, and the interactions between local and Chinese workers are often fraught. The capitalist system of labour management has travelled along the Belt and Road. In Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania, Chinese administrators manage casualised and precarious African labour in mines and on construction projects, with workers’ collective bargaining rights recognised only in cases where mass protests have eventually led to state intervention. Decisions made by lower courts in favour of local workers have often been overruled by central governments. The lack of transparency in contracting and employment on the Mombasa-Nairobi railway project has led many Kenyans to complain not only about being shut out of well-paid, skilled jobs, but also about outright racism. In many places where Chinese construction firms employ both Chinese and local workers, the Chinese have better living quarters and don’t interact with the locals outside work. Something has changed since the age of anti-colonial solidarity. Trouble along the Belt and Road reflects the transition from state-led co-operation to the international public-private partnerships so characteristic of this era.