A mahout feeds white elephants in the compound of Upatasanti Pagoda during the Full Moon day of Waso, the fourth month of Myanmar calendar, Friday, July 27, 2018, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. The Full Moon Day of Waso is the beginning of four-month Rains Retreat for Buddhist monks. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)
Much of the BRI infrastructure investment could become white elephants on a scale we have never seen © AP

Gu Bin is correct (“ China has no interest in pushing its own Marshall Plan”, August 8) that China’s Belt and Road Initiative does not have the same level of security implications as did the US Marshall Plan for western Europe (although security considerations are certainly present, as China’s first overseas military base in 700 years, in Djibouti, was partially built with BRI funds, as is the “string of pearls” port network in the Indian Ocean).

But Dr Bin’s intimation that BRI is solely a selfless act of building harmonious relations with the world ignores the very real concerns — both popular and elite — of debt bondage and even neocolonialism in various countries that the FT has amply reported on recently (especially in Laos, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam).

More broadly, if the debt-fuelled, infrastructure investment-driven growth model is itself slowing in China — after three decades of the fastest urban, manufacturing and export boom the world has ever seen — then what are the chances of success for this development model in much smaller economies that are far from being the “workshop of the world”? For without an export and/or consumption-driven boom in recipient countries to approach the scale of China’s BRI commitment (variously reported as up to $1tn), much of this infrastructure investment will become white elephants on a scale we have never seen.

Of course, Dr Bin’s opinion of China’s foreign policy as being magnanimous and almost uniquely devoid of geopolitical interest is shared by many in Chinese academia, and this points to another fundamental problem. As President Xi Jinping has enshrined his “Thoughts” into the Chinese constitution and removed his presidential term limit, academic freedom, especially the ability to openly challenge conventional wisdom, is even more of a distant “Chinese dream”. This increasing incapacity to even acknowledge divergent critiques of Chinese foreign policy, let alone discuss them seriously, will surely not be in the long-term interests of China.

Sean Kenji Starrs
Assistant Professor of International Relations,
City University of Hong Kong

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