Explorers’ View of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

What is the reality of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, on the ground? As widespread questions emerge about the true scale and scope of President Xi Jinping’s most prominent foreign policy venture, we followed its route for 23,000km from Italy to China to evaluate its progress.

China boasts of plans to invest up to $4 trillion in approximately 65 BRI countries, with around 900 deals supposedly struck. The capital China has committed is staggering in an age of financial austerity. Yet behind the grand figure lies a lack of clarity about which projects really owe their existence to the BRI, and which would have been built anyway.

To escape the rhetoric, we sought a grassroots perspective. We visited 16 BRI projects across 16 countries, each at varying stages of development. Our goal was simple: to learn more about these projects, their nearness to completion and the impact they may have. In doing so we hoped to see beyond the hype and draw conclusions from evidence on the ground.

In March 2017, we left Venice with a tight four-month schedule. Traveling in a Land Rover Defender, we sat cramped among our provisions, including clothing, cameras and camping materials. In the front compartment, we kept our most important possessions: passports, local maps and a spreadsheet using information from the open access database of the Reconnecting Asia project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The spreadsheet documented the various BRI sites we hoped to visit, including available information about locations.

The first site we visited was the Smokovac-Matesvo section of the Bar-Boljare Highway, in Podgorica, Montenegro — launched in October 2014 by multiple partners in China and Montenegro, and expected to be completed in early 2019 at a cost of 809 million euros ($941 million). Eager to make our first pit stop, we identified the addresses that would help us to triangulate the highway’s location. Our spreadsheet provided two names, the Hotel Izvor and Avio Petrol, but these enterprises proved to be more disguised than expected. We were about to embark on a long and fruitless treasure hunt across the nearby mountains.

This was our first encounter with one of the main obstacles of the BRI: Available information often does not coincide with reality on the ground. Where data on a project address was available, we would frequently struggle to locate specific sites, drawing one of two conclusions: Our initial data was inaccurate, or there was no project underway. Where we found construction activity, there was often no guarantee that it was linked to the BRI. Despite the quality of the CSIS data, we repeatedly grappled with this issue in the field.

Where no construction seemed to be underway, as was the case in the Smokovac-Matesvo section of the highway, the best way to gather information was to talk to workers and residents. This almost always led to the same result: On a local level, most people we met across Eurasia had not heard of the BRI.

This included almost all workers at construction sites in the Balkans, Turkey, and Iran. In the rare cases where someone had heard of the initiative, it would most often be referred to as the “New Silk Road,” a term most commonly associated with the media. The lack of recognition on the ground reinforces the widespread criticism that the BRI is a top-down initiative.

High Security, Low Tolerance

Most sites that we could locate were related to railroad infrastructure. Typically, these presented another challenge: a high-level of security with a low-level of tolerance for our curiosity. We encountered particular difficulties at Isfahan’s railway station, in Iran, an integral part of the Tehran-Qom-Isfahan project. Trains on this high-speed rail scheme are expected to run at up to 350km per hour.

Photo credit: Silk Road Project Team

During our visit to the station, it was clear that construction had barely begun. The train services had been unchanged for several years, and only the automatic glass-doors that separated the main reception area from the platforms had been recently renewed. If construction of the project was underway, it had not reached the Isfahan terminal.

At Baku Central railway station, in Azerbaijan, an integral element of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway project, which links Azerbaijan with Turkey via Georgia, a police officer escorted us to the security manager’s office, where we were questioned about our intentions. After successfully expounding on our long-standing passion for trains, we were allowed onto the platforms. Standing in front of us were two markedly different trains — a state-of-the-art high-speed train and a well-preserved Soviet-era train, the latter sitting uncomfortably in a station layered with symbols of modernity ranging from phone-chargers to compartmentalized napping pods.

Unlike the Isfahan terminal, this high-speed train track and its platforms looked operational, suggesting that the project was nearly finished. The three countries are expecting to more than double their current overall national cargo transportation by 2034, significantly shifting the Eurasian region’s economic center of gravity.

Photo credit: Silk Road Project Team

Another promising project we visited was the Baku International Sea Trade Port Alyat, one of three BRI ports to be built in Azerbaijan, which is located 70km south of Baku. Although we were unable to enter the port, we were able to drive alongside it. The ferry terminal looked ready and accessible, and the dynamism of the cranes, lorries and cargo movements suggested that the rest of the port was not far from completion. If the two other ports are built on schedule, Azerbaijan is set to be the logistics and transport hub of the BRI. Less than 3,000km from western China, and close to Iran, Russia and Turkey, its potential to influence Eurasian markets as a distribution center cannot be overstated.

As a rule of thumb, however, the projects closest to completion lay within China’s own borders, such as those in Xinjiang and Gansu provinces in the country’s northwest. High-speed railway lines in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, and Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, were almost all operational. Highways in the northwest were also top-quality, but much of this could be attributed to China’s “Go West” program, which predates the BRI by more than a decade.

Photo credit: Silk Road Project Team

The program was launched in 2000 to develop China’s energy-rich western provinces, connecting them to China’s eastern coast and Central Asia. Consequently, the roads we drove along between Kazakhstan’s Khorgos border crossing and Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Province, were as good as any we had ever driven in Europe or elsewhere. It was clear to us that if the quality of this infrastructure could be replicated across Central Asia the BRI would be a huge success for both China and its hosts.

Corruption Threat

Unfortunately, this desirable outcome is still on the horizon for most of the Central Asian projects we encountered. Of the seven borders we crossed from the Caucasus to Central Asia, many were tainted by inefficiency and required undocumented payments. At the Azerbaijan-Iran border it took us several hours longer to leave Azerbaijan than it did to enter Iran, largely because of a search for alcohol. Upon arriving in Iran, our books were searched for political and pornographic material.

At the Iran-Turkmenistan border, we sat for several hours while our car was searched for cigarettes. These delays add up for cargo-carrying trucks and lorries, which face the longest delays. This mundane reality is overshadowed by the well-publicized successes attributed to the BRI, including a landmark freight journey from Yiwu in China’s Zhejiang Province to London, which took just 18 days by train — half the typical journey time by sea, via the port of Dongyang. However, until border crossings are streamlined, the BRI’s overland routes will struggle.

The challenges we encountered at border crossings and security checkpoints were symptoms of one of the darker sides of Central Asia: corruption. Being stopped by traffic police became part of our daily routine, and on one memorable day in Kyrgyzstan we were pulled over four times, despite abiding by all traffic regulations. Law enforcement officers demanded cash payments in dollars for the generic charge of “breaking the law.”

Photo credit: Silk Road Project Team

Such bribes are commonplace across Central Asia, making it one of the most notoriously corrupt regions in the world. If bribery exists at higher levels, as widespread anecdotal evidence suggests, it could plague large infrastructure projects and destabilize the BRI in the future.

For all the hype and media attention the BRI has received, what it lacks most is transparency. We believe that much of the information that has been made publicly available is opaque and unreliable. While Beijing’s broad ambitions are well-known, rudimentary information about individual projects is not readily available.

Although we are aware that developing a definitive judgement on the BRI would require us to track a more ambitious list of sites, our expedition has helped us to understand several key challenges. First, not all projects are equally on track. Visits revealed a wide-spectrum of track records ranging from dereliction to ostentatious modernity. Second, the BRI is still a top-down initiative. Politicians are more active than builders, and though it may be well-marketed, Xi’s spending commitment has yet to touch most of the societies we encountered. Third, corruption and bureaucracy render overland transport slow and costly, and hence struggle to challenge the sea routes that China has favored for exports to Europe in recent decades.

The BRI’s true potential was on show only in China, where high-speed rail and brand-new highways were visibly transforming the lives of workers and families. While some of these sites may have been built for purposes unrelated to the BRI, they are a testament to China’s ability to bring major projects to fruition when political will is strong. For the moment, however, the BRI outside of China remains largely hype.

Ankur Shah is a former author for the UNESCO Silk Road Online Platform in Paris, Caspar Worthington is a former Bank of England analyst, and Giulio A. Bianchi is a former Central Asian and Eastern European market analyst for SACE, an Italian financial and insurance group. Their journey was sponsored by National Geographic’s Young Explorers program.

This article was originally published in Nikkei Asian Review on November 17, 2017.