Sun & Star Webinar Series: The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century

On February 25th, 2021, the SMU Tower Scholar Program invited Jonathan E. Hillman, author of The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century, to discuss Prime Minister Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative for China: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In a world of growing interconnectivity, it may seem that this initiative is very necessary and altruistic; but in reality, we see the fractures in its foundation and future projections.

Hillman discussed the BRI by explaining its past, present, and future. When it was first unveiled in 2013, it was introduced as a land, maritime, and pipeline infrastructure development initiative for countries around the world. It promised $1 trillion in investments to support Chinese political, economic, and military ambitions by strengthening local economies and infrastructure in developing countries. At this point, the response to the project was positive, and Hillman stated that “it felt that the world had shown up to China’s initiative and the U.S. was just a spectator.” While the world was on board with the seemingly philanthropic goal, Hillman explained that today’s reality is far from what was promised in 2013.

Thus far, China has only met half of the trillion-dollar investment goal it initially hoped to attain, and a closer look at the contracts point to many of them being aspirational and broad in nature. Hillman called the contracts “political symbols, not operational agreements.” The projects that China has successfully signed on to, such as a major one across India and Pakistan and another in the Western Balkans, remain incomplete or paralyzed completely due to the pandemic. What is worse, is that many of the projects on the ground are funded by China, and therefore 90 percent of the contracts go to Chinese companies rather than local businesses.

Looking ahead, China must now face the implications of its failing projects around the world. Many countries are frustrated with the lack of transparency and oversight for infrastructure initiatives on their soil, while others voice concerns about their economies not reaping employment benefits. Furthermore, there are issues with predatory loans being granted to developing countries, which are detrimental to their economies in the long run. These issues are making many states reluctant to do BRI work with China, but that does not mean that China lacks a positive trajectory. It can still look forward to foreign investments as many actors remain supportive of the initiative. With new projects such as the Digital Second Wave, a technological infrastructure project, and the Health Silk Road, a healthcare infrastructure initiative, China may be able to maintain many of its 140 signatories and possibly even add more to the list. This, of course, will only be possible if China can avoid the financial strain of the pandemic and failed plans.

In his final answer to the audience, Hillman answered what the U.S. can do in response to China’s growing influence. At first, the U.S. stayed silent regarding the BRI but eventually turned to criticism. Now, according to Hillman, the U.S. should work to emphasize the reality of BRI projects and bring transparency to countries that fall into the trap of predatory loans and economic stagnation. To do this, we should support civil society and journalism in host countries. Finally, the U.S. and its allies should also provide alternative investments to countries in need. We are at a critical junction in history where we can either confront China’s imperialism or sit back and witness the breakdown of the liberal world order.

Watch the entire event below

To learn more about SMU Tower Center events, go here.

This post was written by Saavni Desai ’23, a President’s Scholar and Tower Scholar. She is double majoring in Political Science and International Studies with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa and triple minoring in Arabic, Philosophy, and the Tower Scholars Public Policy and International Affairs minor. She also does research alongside Professor Takeuchi and is involved in Mock Trial, Indian Student Association, and the Alpha Chi Omega sorority.