The Belt and Road Initiative’s Infringement on Global Sovereignty

Image credit: Ahn Ho Rhee

At the forefront of Chinese foreign policy, China hopes that through economic partnership and generous lending, countries around the world can further develop their economies, allowing China to become a more resilient and powerful nation in the global arena. Since China’s announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, nearly 150 countries have joined the project, which is significantly more than they initially expected. While BRI has brought about substantial economic development, and China claims its support is generous, these claims do not show the complete picture. The United States, Western governments, and international observers are rightfully concerned that BRI is coercive, describing BRI to be a “debt trap” that forces nations to be loyal to the Chinese government through political, economic, and military decisions and favors.

China believes its trillion-dollar project will create a more comprehensive, modern-day Silk Road across Asia, Europe and Africa, and, in recent years, this project has spread more rapidly than originally envisioned. However, the project is riddled with maintenance issues, allows for the vast displacement of local workers, actively damages the environment and conducts predatory lending practices. These effects leave projects rendered useless and the host nation worse off than before Chinese investment. These worries should be of vital concern to the United States as BRI has the possibility to significantly alter the economic, political, and military security and balance of our world, especially as the project becomes increasingly popularized. 

In China’s own backyard, the country has rallied various nations throughout Asia to participate in BRI. Although China already serves as a massive power in the region, the introduction of BRI has further allowed China to establish itself as the leader of Asia, especially economically. 37 Asian countries are currently participating in BRI. Despite this high number, numerous countries have pulled out of BRI plans stating that they were nervous about the implications and debt responsibility. Between 2013 to 2021, Malaysia abandoned deals worth $11.58 billion, and Kazakhstan exited projects worth $1.5 billion. Many other Asian countries may pull out of deals or reject future BRI proposals as the outcomes of BRI in Asia, as seen in Sri Lanka, have caused tremendous environmental and economic turmoil for the nation. 

Sri Lanka, an island country in South Asia, which has a prime geopolitical and trade presence due to its Indian Ocean access, was detrimentally affected by the environmental effects and predatory lending practices of BRI. During the construction of the Port of Colombo, environmental concerns took a back seat as mining was conducted to construct the landfill of the city. These actions caused the obstruction of marine life, which resulted in an extreme risk to biodiversity in both the immediate and surrounding areas.

BRI’s predatory lending practices have also caused Sri Lanka to find itself in a debt trap with China, forcing a significant surrender of its sovereignty and security. China had used the failure of being unable to repay the debt to take over strategic economic and military assets, as seen in 2017 in Sri Lanka when $1 billion out of $8 billion in debt was forgiven in exchange for a 99-year lease of the Port of Hambantota, the country’s second-largest port, and 15,000 acres surrounding the port. While the port is primarily being operated for commercial use, Sri Lankan officials have stated that when conducting the deal with China, the ability of China to utilize the port for intelligence and strategic operations was also a possibility that was discussed.

China has even extended its reach as far as Latin America. Latin America was not initially part of BRI in its earliest phases. However, in the past few years, China has increased its focus on the region. In 2017, in a meeting with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the continent is a “natural extension of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.” While the continent is more weary of its support of BRI, it is clear that China is increasingly becoming a critical partner for the region. Brazil sends approximately 28% of its exports to China, and, as part of the BRI vision for Latin America, one project consists of building an underwater fiber optic cable between Chile and China. Despite this fervor, the same worries of environmental damage and economic extortion should concern international observers, as exhibited by the unraveling situation in Peru.

Peru, a country residing on the Pacific Ocean and spanning a portion of the Amazon rainforest, is undergoing significant BRI investment. In June 2018, a Chinese company, COSCO, bought a 60% stake in the Chancay port in North Lima and pledged to improve the port as part of BRI. The construction is set to cost $600 million, and the first pier aims to be ready in late 2023. While China and Peru hope that this port will be financially successful, there already have been environmental consequences as part of this project. The killing of wildlife and plant life, the release of dangerous toxins, and the displacement of local communities are rampant because of this project. As a result of these outcomes, local communities have been protesting this development since 2019. 

Another project China has invested in is the expansion of Toromocho Copper Mine. This project poses an inherent environmental and health risk to Peru. The further development of copper mining in Peru will cause widespread deforestation, land degradation, water pollution, and a human health risk for workers and surrounding communities. Despite Peru deeming China as a “good trade partner,” it is evident that if China truly cared for the long-term success of Peru and the safety of its citizens, they would not encourage sustainable and destructive development.

Rather than just publicly criticizing BRI, the United States must focus its efforts on Chinese predatory lending practices that leave nations susceptible to Chinese extortion. The United States should then advise these countries on how to better negotiate deals with China to ensure a nation’s right to sovereignty. The United States should rally the EU and partner up to make a comprehensive infrastructure plan that is more ambitious than the $600 billion Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment coming from the G7 committee that only secures funds by 2027. The need for action is now. Instead of asking nations to pick a side, providing this alternative with fair loan practices that underscore sovereignty for the host nation can be an attractive option for countries looking for foreign direct investment. This strategy will both boost American morale across the world and pressure China to amend their BRI policies to more fairly compete with Western infrastructure initiatives.

BRI has provided some success; however, that does not outweigh the blatant issues associated with the initiative. While each country has specific conditions that leave them vulnerable to coercion and extortion by the Chinese, the risk is always the same. China is an unreliable and exploitative partner that will negatively impact our world order as BRI infringes on the principles of sovereignty and the right to self-governance. The United States must fast-track its Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment initiative with G7 as the fight for sovereignty cannot wait — the risk is simply too great. 


Lauren Schulsohn

Lauren Schulsohn is a senior double majoring in theater with an emphasis on comedy and international relations. Lauren is from New York City and has always seen the impact foreign affairs can have on domestic issues and even communities in her area. Lauren wants to combine her interests in comedy and international relations to create meaningful social and political commentary. Since starting at USC, on-campus Lauren has joined the fencing club as the social chair and is a member of the Unruh Associates, a group dedicated to increasing civic engagement and bipartisan debate.