Eleanor M. Albert: Today, our guest is Min Ye. Min Ye is associate professor of international relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Her research is situated in the nexus between domestic and global politics and the intersection of economics and security, with a focus on China, India, and regional relations. Her publications include The Belt, Road and Beyond: State-Mobilized Globalization in China 1998 — 2018 (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Min Ye was previously selected as a Public Intellectual Program fellow with the National Committee on the U.S-China Relations and a Rosenberg Scholar of East Asian Studies at Suffolk University.
Min, welcome to the show. We're going to talk today about the Belt and Road [Initiative, BRI]. But before we talk about the high-ticket items, I wanted to ask you how you came about tracking and following what has really become this flagship initiative of Xi Jinping?
Min Ye: This is fundamentally the most important question. The external analysts are lagging behind when it comes to China's domestic policy, evolution or change. It's lagging behind by about a year to 18 months. When I started pay attention to BRI, it was 2013, right?
In 2014, it was already very clear to me this [was] something significant. And the reason that I was able to detect that, and most of my colleagues didn't, [is] because I was attending a lot of Chinese scholarly think tank conferences. On the economy, on international relations, and I wasn't looking for BRI, but BRI just stood out to me.
The economists, they didn't know what to do. They were in such despair trying to find solutions to overcapacity. I also feel there was very strong political insecurity, because the new leader just came and China had very different kinds of over construction, infrastructure, resources, investment before this leader. People were developing their vested interests and their career trajectories in the preexisting construction. And now this new leader came, and they [didn’t] know how this [was] going to affect their work and their future.
So when BRI somehow came out, Clearly BRI was announced by the [new] leader, so it's politically safe, and yet it's also about investment project, infrastructure, globalization, connectivity, so the five [elements of] connectivity: people, culture, policy, trade, investment in infrastructure. Everyone can be part of this safe, new strategic initiative. The political aspect was really important, and that affects the domestic policy community. They find BRI. This is optimistically [a] very convenient venue for them, revamp, readapt, and continue their previous endeavors.
But at a more humanistic level, and for people who grew up in China and who are familiar with Chinese ideas, aspirations, perspective, I can see that so many Chinese scholars or businesses who perhaps will not have any use of BRI but feel attracted to BRI. The idea is it's really speaking to the learned, acquired perception of the world, and China's role in the world.
The cultural symbolism of BRI, one was maritime domain. The maritime exploration led by Admiral Zheng He. This has been an [ongoing] myth to China. It's open outlook, going to the sea, spreading Chinese culture and gifts and while bringing goodwill or sharing China's goodwill and bringing the appreciation of the Chinese cultural and technological achievements.
And the Silk Road, that's even more historic because the Chinese had thousands of years of land exploration. In fact, I think at almost all diplomatic conference rooms in these big fancy office buildings, in diplomatic offices, they all have this painting of Zhang Qian [a Chinese diplomat and official in the late second century BC] going to the West. I think this aspiration, or ambition, to be this new benign, global force that makes this announcement very attractive.
So you have two levels. At the top level, at the global level; at a more humanistic level, the Silk Road and the maritime Silk Road. It just speaks to the Chinese fundamental intellectual historical core.
And [finally] at a more operational policy level, and then the economic needs, the political safety net, and then the diplomats and the strategists can also fashion ways of connecting their ongoing efforts with BRI. I haven't seen any policy in my whole life that got so much interest from so many people in China.
But that doesn't mean it's not criticized. I remember very clearly that online when the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Exchange talked about the Marshall Plan, right? Chinese Marshall Plan. You had this media outcry from ordinary people charging this person for forgetting our own poor, schools, children, thinking about over-expansion.
Even in late 2015, at a very high-level BRI think tank meetings with scholars, half of the scholars were very critical and half of them are very, very supportive. The middle ground [was] actually the minority. This all indicates that in China, this is by no means [a] well-thought and coordinated policy. But it has a Chinese logic, the humanistic global aspiration logic related to China's nationalism, globalism. Then you have this political economic logic of development. Economists and construction companies, investors—they need something to safely carry out.
That's why I said there's a gap. When I came back to the United States in 2014 and I said this is a real deal. For about two years, every person that I spoke to, they were so dismissive. "It's just talk. There's no money, there's no funding mechanism." And then [I would] say, "Well, it can't be just talk when you have so many elites pouring their resources and trying to figure out ways to implement it." Then we have the BRI summit number one, 2017. Then the people, the diplomats in Beijing, they already understood that this is big deal.
In my opinion, in 2017, that's when the fervor [began] dying down. Because all the actions that were accumulated from 2014 to 2017, the steam is gone and BRI has entered a second phase, a phase that the leader [tried] to give it a brand, a name.
But in fact, [on] the implementation side, this bottom-up, pent-up demand for it has already slowed down. This would mark the two or three years after, when the West was imposing restrictions, oversight, which are clearly needed.
But it's also a period that China itself has lost a lot of steam. Now I think we're entering another phase of lagging behind. Because during COVID[-19 pandemic], none of us could go to China or work with the Chinese and COVID[-19] really disrupted the trajectory of BRI. So China could not sustain the big projects.
For example, these big routes, right? The corridors, the CPEC [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor], and then the Ukraine war basically stopped the China-European railways. So BRI is really facing a lot of disruption. The financial sustainability of the partner countries is also concerning.
We are at the state that the West are still seeing BRI in two ways. One is: “Oh, it’s gone too fast, we still need China.” And that would be the global development specialist trying to salvage Chinese interest in global infrastructure, global development, global financing, just do it better. And then we have the policy and political circles that view BRI as a challenge: “China is putting up a systematic coordinated grant strategy to dominate the technology space, and to bind different regions.”
But I think the BRI within China has already entered a new phase. During COVID[-19], just out of expediency, and also the Chinese domestic economic sectoral change makes this as necessary. That has moved to green BRI, and digital BRI and infrastructure. That's where I feel if the West can understand BRI not in a lagging fashion, rather in a prescient fashion, then they'll know that BRI's new direction actually would make the rhetorical element, that cooperation, a possible avenue.
This is the avenue that China is pursuing, that is a global environment, climate change, green technology, green economy. When we hear almost every single politician in the West saying, "We don't want to fight China on all grounds. We still want to be able to cooperate on climate." But they are still missing this, the Chinese, the greatest climate initiative that is green BRI. Because they still conceptualize BRI as a strategy against the West. We are missing an opportunity to cooperate more proactively.
Eleanor M. Albert: That was a great overview of how this has evolved, how you got interested in it. This fall will be 10 years since BRI was first announced. You mentioned a lot of different actors. I wonder if we could just break down and dispel some of the misunderstandings of what BRI is. There are all these ways in which the West, in particular, has fundamentally misunderstood how BRI came to be and what it represents.
Obviously, it's changed in that decade. It seemed for a while that every single project had BRI stamped on it. Today, are there standards for what qualifies as a BRI project? Who are the bureaucratic entities that oversee and coordinate on BRI issues?
Min Ye: I'll say two things. One, I think it's a right question to ask and to push the Chinese side on what's BRI project. This has been [an] ongoing effort in China, too. To what extent you want to offer clarity and mechanism so that the risk of all China projects will not become a government diplomatic risk. This question is not only welcomed and encouraged and urged by outsiders, [but] it's actually urged by China, too. They are looking for ways to categorize so that they can take measured risk on China's actions abroad because, indeed, a lot of actions China does abroad are not BRI.
I think there are some rough sketches. One is, if it's a Chinese aid project, right? International aid, they set up a new office regulating Chinese aid abroad, and those will all be government projects. I think it's important to rather think about "Is this BRI project or not?" Rather you think about "Is this a government project or not?" What's government project, what's not, what's fusion.
So government project, if it's aid, if it involves government grants... They have China-African funds and China-Latin American forums and China-Middle Eastern forums. At those forums, projects announced are largely government-led. They follow a different rationale. And you can find signature important projects on the State Council Development Research Center, that's the leading think tank, and also coordinating and the implementer of the BRI small leading group, right?
[The] BRI small leading group should be the top political body of BRI, except small leading group is not a bureaucratic body, it's just a liaison, coordinating mechanism. Their desk office is really the NRDC [National Development and Reform Commission]. So the NRDC does update the small leading group's reports and various projects. You can find the projects that are recognized by the small leading group as BRI projects.
We have aid, that's a separate office. And then for investment then you have Ministry of Commerce [MOFCOM]. MOFCOM approves all projects that are above certain threshold. Here again, you can tell whether they are invested by the state or private. If that matters, you can make the separation. That's as good as you get. And then the banks, anything that are financed by the Silk Road Fund or AIIB [Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or China Exim Bank [The Export–Import Bank of China]. But the complexity with this is that none of them alone are financing. They're always joint financing. But overall, if you held the aid money, you have these development bank financing, and somehow, they announced on these various forums or bilateral summits.
Then you have inclusion in the NDRC or the small leading group, their database. That's quite fair to say that is public, so related to the government objective. But I also feel like it's not as useful to identify BRI projects, because BRI is a concept.
Even the best data scientists, their data will not tell you completely whether this is BRI or not. Our GDP center [Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center] compiles all the loans. That's as best as you can do. You have this sectoral, very good database. The Chinese loans or Chinese investments in power plants and who are the investors. The Chinese couldn't create this because bureaucratically, they can't really control, they can't really tell that all its investors “Are you BRI?” It doesn't matter anyway.
If you want to look for the governing body, then it's NDRC—National Development and Reform Council. The NDRC people, they understand the Chinese political economy very well. Most of the projects are locally-led.
Other than these top-down available funds, opportunities, projects, the tendering process or some of the ideas came from local [-level]. And it's not just 33 provincial units, you have hundreds of cities, towns, and companies.
So setting up top-down, transparency… you are basically asking China to become Singapore... It's impossible. China has a lot of similarity with Singapore, except Singapore is a city and China is huge. That's where I think it's useful to identify by the financing mechanism to what extent the government is involved in the projects, but it's futile and it's unnecessary trying to impose so-called transparency on everything China does under the sun, right?
Eleanor M. Albert: Especially if BRI is more of a conceptual umbrella, [a] branding tool for not just addressing domestic over-capacity that has existed for a long time, but it's also being employed to reframe the way China engages and orients itself towards the world. Those are concepts that are going to be really difficult to generate cookie-cutter categorization markers. In some ways, it also fits a lot with standard traditional Chinese political policy rhetoric, in terms of having flexible, overarching concepts that are malleable. And that has been to their benefit.
There's been so much discussion about whether BRI projects have been successful. Are there some success stories that you have studied that you want to share in terms of the impact that they've had? Then the flip side of it, what are some of the growing pains or lessons learned, either for China or for recipients?
Min Ye: People all need to know a little bit about statistics, right? Sometimes I'm so frustrated when people say, "Oh, 2% is wrong, then you can't say it's success." You have to calculate the statistical representation to say one thing is worthwhile to do or not. In general, I think all the commentators when they talk about this, they don't have the statistical formula behind it. So I can't tell you that everything is successful, right? Because it's not.
If we want to do a model recipient of BRI, what that would be? Malaysia, I guess. Malaysia is benefiting significantly, and yet you can't say Malaysians are all successful or all the projects in Malaysia are successful.
Within China, BRI is still more popular than unpopular. Survey after survey shows more than 80% of Chinese support BRI. And then you think about the real elites—the local governments, companies, think tanks, bureaucrats—and then they think BRI is a more useful venue for them than otherwise. In a sense it's still quite popular for China: overseas investments, export or EV [electric vehicles] and green technology exports, health cooperation. BRI is a good brand for them, and it's an accepted venue and you have regular meetings. I anticipate the BRI summit, after 10 years, you'll see a lot more projects, initiatives coming from this fusion of local and top-down interests.
In terms of overseas, in general, the BRI benefits the elites more than locals. But even when they are benefiting the localities, it doesn't make it a popular project. But over 10 years, they bring changes that are better for the locality. But nevertheless, people still don't like it.
I'll give you a personal example. I was so sad that my childhood house was repossessed by the government, the whole wetland area. For all of us, the whole generation of us, growing up in that area, we all were really, really sad by this redevelopment of a very vibrant community into the wetland park. And elderly people certainly were distraught.
But then, this community is unviable because the elderly, they're not working-age population, who were living there. So the government repossessed the whole wetland area and then turned into a really outstanding, really beautiful, massive wetland park. It's all riverways, bridges and lands and temples, and it's very well done. Then the relocated community, they were relocated. It took people a long time to adjust, but if you ask population there, they'll say, "No, I don't like [it], I still miss my older place." But they get by, because they still live close to each other except now they're in high-rises rather than in the community houses.
Eleanor M. Albert: My presumption would also be that for the type of work that some of BRI projects are being done overseas, there's an added level of challenge. Because in the Chinese context, that's a relationship between state and society. When you take BRI projects outside of the Chinese context, it's a state-to-state and then state-to-society relationship. And Chinese actors aren't necessarily always working on a two-pronged front. They prioritize a state-to-state relationship. The trickle-down effects of what BRI comes to represent for local communities of BRI recipient projects is probably more complex.
Min Ye: I totally agree. I'm doing research with a collaborator in Laos. Same concept, but it's run very poorly. When I gave you example of the Chinese development, it's local agents who were actually implementing these re-transformations. It's your own people who talk to all the households extensively. There are lots of mistakes, there are lots of errors, there are lots of unjust [sic], but overall it's your own people. They're trying to do the best for the most possible people.
In the Laos situation, the case we explore, no one is considering. You studied Chinese behavior, right? The Chinese companies, they got their funding from the Chinese local governments and they really only pay attention to the local governments in China. Same thing, the localities, local governments in Laos, they know these companies. They don't care about the Chinese operator there because they say, "We only needed to work with the Chinese in China." And so they don't even bother trying to work with the Chinese operators on site. You'll find the operators doing something and then no cooperative show-up from the local representatives or the government. You can imagine that for already very faulty development in the perfect case, and now you are transferring this experience abroad. So, if you're thinking about public opinion, no, that's not going to help.
But I do think a lot of non-China persons, when they only say, "Oh, people are not happy." I think that's not really the fundamental… Public opinion works to a certain extent. Or they say, "Why do you build this speed rail in Indonesia? You only need a three-hour drive; you already have a highway." No, the speed rail will shorten it to less than hour. And you can work. Because you already are in a high-traffic area, which means the business, the demand is there.
Going back to our initial conversation on ideology. Because [for] the Chinese is a kind of infrastructure ideology, but also power is about infrastructure power. The state penetrates and projects its authority in society through infrastructure, and that experience is not abroad. When infrastructure in a non-China setting is a transactional calculation, cost-benefits, you see that China needs [to] explain a lot more, and also the applicability of this model, whether it works, is actually very questionable.
Eleanor M. Albert: That makes a lot of sense. On top of this focus on the state penetration through infrastructure and different types of construction projects, there are also a lot of questions about the financing of these projects and the viability of the economic status of some of the recipients of these projects and loans. There's so much public discussion about this phrase of “debt trap diplomacy,” the narratives around it. How valid are those?
Min Ye: Again, let me reiterate my point of statistics. If you think about thousands of projects and loans from China since 2005, or more, thousands of loans projects, I cannot say none of them are debt entrapment. For example, I’ve studied Chinese investments in Africa since 2005, and perhaps out of the need to secure energy security or critical minerals… hypothetically; actually, I haven't seen one case that can be clearly identified as debt entrapment: defined as you give debt with a goal to possess your collateral.
When we think about banking, the banks lend me money to buy the house. The goal is not to make money off the loan, rather they want to indebt me so that they can possess my house in a few years. That's what we call debt entrapment. So if that's the definition of debt entrapment... I haven't seen clearly one, but I can't say it doesn't exist.
But hypothetically, if we are thinking, then for very specific, geostrategic localities... I always think leaders or policymakers or even businesspeople, they have a stratagem. And for the businesspeople to be able to acquire this critical mineral, they may do things that give them an advantage.
With possible strategic choke points, and possible critical mineral resources vital to China's energy security and national security, it's possible that loans were given with the purpose of gaining influence and control, so that that vital interest can be maintained. And those are different level of strategic operation, or stratagem by Beijing.
In general, Chinese loans, the vast majority, it's out of commercial concerns. Investment in the iron ore materials actually are needed by China. In my book, I actually talk about the Chinese investments in Africa from 2008 to 2011. There was lots of press around it and mostly were done by private investors, and they were very, very successful for the investors; they made so much money from those resource acquisitions, but they lost them all in the solar industry expansion. For the raw material that they acquire in Africa, they just buy up one of the small mines, and then export them back to China. And because of commodity price rises... So it's not planned, so you can see that for the smartest capitalist that they are playing with their luck.
Now going back to the recipient side, you can't really anticipate COVID[-19]. That's for sure. Absent of COVID[-19], some governments, they are irresponsible borrowers, or they couldn't produce enough return. That's what we call financial risk, and the financial risk is increased by China. That's when you have monetary supply, loose credit, the financial risk increases.
There's lot of need to really work with China because all of us have stake in a stable financial environment globally. And it's a loss for China, too, when you lend to certain governments and it doesn't recuperate, and you have no use for those collaterals. It's a sunk [cost] problem.
Eleanor M. Albert: I think it's really important for us to keep in mind when we talk about the risks of certain types of loans and debts. China has learned a lot in a relatively short period of time in its experience as a lender, after having been a recipient. I think it wanting to distinguish itself as a state that was perhaps more risk-tolerant for certain types of conditions has also mean that it has learned, and probably is doing some deep thinking, about how it will finance some of these things moving forward.
In that vein, in the past year, we've seen Xi Jinping solidify his position in the party-state apparatus. At the same time, China is really trying to revive its economic situation after its pandemic isolation. What are the types of things that you are watching moving forward for what the future of BRI might look like? Is BRI undergoing a reform or is it just shifting into a new phase?
Min Ye: That’s a very good question. I think BRI has become bidirectional. When we initially think of BRI, it's from China to abroad. In this direction, China to abroad, it will be definitely much smaller in terms of scale because they overexpanded, so it's another round of restructuring. Some of the investments will continue. I think a lot of those in Southeast Asia are moving relatively steadily—Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia. Under the bracket of RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to abroad, that part is still ongoing.
And then Latin America, Africa, they already had done significantly. So some of them are just about if some of the projects can be maintained, sustaining it and restructuring it. I think new will be add-ons, right? And the add-ons will be on green. Because green means a lot of things in China. Electrical vehicle and the joint sectors like battery, minerals… And then for battery you need a charging station. So a whole industry belongs to green. Then digital, like telecommunication infrastructure, but also digital devices, parts and components.
That’s part of the so-called supply chain restructuring. I think both will be based on major infrastructure or special economic zones: China builds [an] industrial park in different countries in Africa and in Southeast Asia. They may provide the launchpad for the add-ons—digital and health, like vaccine production and medical devices, various sectors—and the green BRI is add-on.
But it's becoming inward too. The BRI summit this year, almost for sure, there will be a lot of business-led and how others can be investing in China and exporting in China. I'm actually a political economist; I'm not foreign policy person. I think the real drama is within China.
As a domestic political economy person, I got interested in the BRI because the drama moved overseas! But now it's domestic; you are seeing new trends and whether some of these identified priorities like trade restructuring, dual circulation, the whole sustainable development, supply chain restructuring, whether these will happen and how it happens, we'll see a lot more from within China than outside.
The U.S.-China Nexus is created, produced, and edited by me, Eleanor M. Albert. Our music is from Universal Production Music. Special thanks to Shimeng Tong, Tuoya Wulan, and Amy Vander Vliet. For more initiative programming, videos, and links to events, visit our website at uschinadialogue.georgetown.edu. And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.