Belts, Roads, and Modern Colonialism

When the word “colonialism” comes to mind, one usually imagines the era of exploration when Great Britain, Portugal, and others conquered new territories, declaring them as their own. To many, colonialism is something that happened decades, even centuries ago, and when asked about modern colonialism, Russia’s annexing of Crimea might be the only thing that comes to mind. In reality, however, colonialism is alive and well, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative is at the forefront of this dangerous trend.

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Temple of Six Banyan Trees, Guangzhou, China

China purports that the goal of the Belt and Road Initiative, started in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, is to create a modern Silk Road and improve interregional cooperation in over 65 countries. According to the World Bank, these countries make up over 30% of global GDP, so it is no wonder that China is interested in promoting cooperation. On the surface, it appears that this initiative could result in impressive economic opportunities for many developing nations that would otherwise not be able to participate in the rapidly globalizing economy. Upon further inspection, however, China’s motives may not be as sanctimonious as initially believed.

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Hambantota Port’s Location, Google Maps

The Sri Lankan Government borrowed $8 billion USD from the Chinese Government to build an expansive port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s location in the middle of the Indian Ocean makes it a very strategic investment for China, as it is a perfect stop for ships bound for Europe through the Suez Canal.

When the port was unprofitable, Sri Lanka was no longer able to make payments on the loan, and was forced to default. As part of the debt relief agreement, China negotiated a 99-year lease on the port, which has drawn comparisons to the lease of Hong Kong from Qing China to Britain. In my opinion, the entire chain of events seems so serendipitous for China it is difficult to imagine it wasn’t planned from the start. For $8 billion, China received territory in the middle of the Indian Ocean for 99 years. Deal of the century.

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View from the Hong Kong — Guangzhou intercity train shortly after leaving Hung Hom Station. The travel time will be cut by more than half once the express train service is inaugurated.

The rail development project to establish high-speed train service between Hong Kong and mainland China has been in the works for more than a decade, and it is finally ready for its inauguration. As part of the handover agreement between Britain and China, the Chinese government promised to maintain separation between Hong Kong and Mainland under the One Country, Two Systems principle. The construction of this high-speed rail link, as well as the introduction of Chinese citizenship cards for Hong Kongers working or studying in Mainland, could potentially be seen as encroachments on this agreement.

Although this rail link is a joint venture between China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, I believe China is preparing for full assimilation of Hong Kong. Whether this is the right thing to do, I can not judge, because there is actually high support for China within Hong Kong. Time will tell the true motives of this construction.

China has invested heavily in Lao infrastructure, particularly in the form of dams on the Mekong River. According to The Diplomat, China has already invested multi billions in dam construction, with over $2.4 billion invested in the Pak Beng Dam. These dams will sell a majority of energy generated to neighboring Thailand, but it’s largely unclear what portion of the revenues will be split with Laos.

What is clear, however, is the huge environmental impact these dams have already had. Although China brands these investments as good for the economies of the Mekong-States, I believe it is a thinly-veiled attempt of China to gain access to the Mekong as a shipping lane. Currently, the river is not large enough to accommodate large ships, and it would require high degrees of geo-editing to enable this capability. The environmental impact from dynamiting the river and constructing dams will be incredibly detrimental to the millions of people who depend on the Mekong for their livelihood. The dams have already begun hindering fish migrations, and the collapse of Xepian Xe Nam Noy Dam due to “substandard construction” lead to the presumed death of more than twenty people and the displacement of more than a thousand.

It is not confirmed that Chinese companies built the collapsed dam, but it is clear that foreign companies can easily take advantage of Laos’ fragmented government and construct substandard dams under favorable terms with very little accountability.

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Lao dam collapse, photo copyright BBC, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44935495

An article published in the South China Morning Post makes a claim that China discussed plans to focus on “sustainable debt” when investing in Africa. Although the newspaper is privately owned by Alibaba Group, there have been some controversies in the past involving articles published about the Chinese Government. Additionally, this rebuttal isn’t published elsewhere, and the Economist challenges their claims of sustainability.

Regardless, even if China moves forward with sustainable investments in Africa, I consider this announcement as an admission of guilt for their predatory investing practices on other portions of their new Silk Road. These three examples are just a small glimpse into China’s modern colonialism, and there is plenty more evidence in the South China Sea, Kazakhstan, Iran, Tanzania, and dozens of other locations. China is bullying its neighbors under the guise of helping them, and if the world doesn’t stand up for the more vulnerable countries it is foreseeable that China begins expanding their territory through these exploitative methods.

This is an opinion piece by Warren Bischoff. The opinions expressed here are my own, formed by the information I have read and the initiatives I have witnessed in person during my travels. From Laos to Mongolia, and Greece to Vietnam, I have seen China’s influence spread. Whether this is a good thing for the world as a whole, I do not know, but it is clearly an important issue of our time.

Written by

Journalist, entrepreneur and student - Boston College, University of Otago. Buddhist. Expert adventurer and consultant for conducting business in Asia.

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