China's Global Infrastructure Initiative Raises Environmental Concerns

A commentary by Dan Southerland
OBOR-09292017.jpg Leaders pose for photographs during a Belt and Road Forum hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping near Beijing, May 15, 2017.

China’s new “maritime cooperation policy” is getting mixed reviews from experts.

The policy would in theory reduce the overfishing and environmental degradation that Chinese fishermen have caused close to their own shores and as far away as Africa.

Some experts say that Beijing is getting more serious about protecting the world’s marine environment. But they also note that China has had regulations calling for such protections on the books for many years.

The government’s enforcement of these regulations, they say, has at least until recently been lacking.

Some note that the maritime cooperation policy introduced through a policy paper in June, is tightly linked to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative. This could mean that Beijing is giving economic goals the highest priority.

That would leave the marine environment as a secondary concern as China builds “new Silk Road” trade corridors from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and beyond.

The official title of China’s policy paper is “Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative.”

It calls for a number of land and sea trade corridors connecting China with the rest of the world.

These corridors will require the construction of roads, railroads and, deep-water ports, so the costs will be considerable. Some analysts say that investments in OBOR may eventually run to more than 1 trillion U.S. dollars.

But a word of caution is needed here. The details of how OBOR will work remain almost as unclear as when China first unveiled its overall policy goals four years ago, according to Peter Fuhrman,  the founder and chief executive officer of the investment bank China First Capital.

In an analysis published by The Financial Times on Sept. 25, Fuhrman lists a few of the key unanswered questions about OBOR:

How much cash China will invest or loan? Where are the first-order priority projects located? Will any of the spending achieve commercial rates of return?

China’s most ambitious project brings challenges

What’s clear is that OBOR remains President Xi Jinping’s “most ambitious foreign policy” effort to date, as The Economist described it in the spring of this year.

If it succeeds, the magazine said, it “could one day rival transatlantic trade in importance.”

For those familiar with the ancient Silk Road connecting China with Europe via caravans, this is a much larger undertaking than that earlier network of trade routes which brought silk and other luxury items to Venice and Rome.

The Silk Road, made famous by the 13th century Venetian merchant Marco Polo, linked Xian in Central China with Europe via then-thriving trade hubs in Central Asia and the Middle East.

President Xi’s OBOR, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) encompasses all of these trading hubs plus many more.

Its calls for a China-Indian-Ocean-Africa-Mediterranean-Sea “Blue Corridor” running westward from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and connecting with a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

Another economic passage would lead to Europe via the Arctic Ocean.

Nothing can be achieved without many roads, railroad links, and ports.

And following the typical Chinese pattern in dealing with major infrastructure projects overseas, Chinese workers probably will do most of the necessary construction work.

China will no doubt also use its new connections to mine resources such as gold and tungsten, which are still plentiful in Central Asia and Africa. This will provide employment for Chinese miners as China reduces its coal mine production at home in line with its climate change pledges.

It’s useful to look at China’s construction projects already in place in Africa to see what could go wrong with all of this.

Although some projects in Africa appear to have gone well, such as a Chinese-built railroad in Ethiopia, others have been subject to a diversion of funds to the corrupt local officials charged with arranging the acquisition of land and licenses.

Some of the 60-odd countries expected to benefit from the BRI are also among those with the worst ratings on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions list of nations.

China prides itself on not interfering in the internal affairs of foreign nations, but stricter oversight than “business as usual” will now need to be applied in order to benefit the poorest of the poor in these countries.

Record of overfishing

China’s Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative includes, among its loftier goals, “promoting development and eradicating poverty.”

And China, it says, “is prepared to provide technical assistance to countries along the Road.”

But it’s not clear how this will work out for the marine environment in some key regions, such as the South China Sea, where millions of people depend heavily on protein provided by fish.

Chinese overfishing in the South China Sea has brought some fish species to the brink of collapse. And Chinese fishing fleets in the region far outnumber the fleets of Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

The good news for the region was a Chinese decision early this year to enforce regulations calling for a halt to the harvesting and processing by Chinese fishermen of giant clams in the South China Sea.

The giant clams are embedded in coral reefs that protect small fish from predators. The coral reefs also play a role in replenishing fish stocks.

In another potentially positive development, Chinese officials have stated that Beijing has plans to radically reduce the size of China’s huge distant waters fishing fleet, which would amount to a major benefit for fishermen in Vietnam.

Until recently, Vietnamese fishermen have reported that Chinese fishermen backed by Coast Guard vessels have been seizing their fish catches.

Zhang Hongzhou, a research fellow at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, says that his general impression is that the Chinese government is getting more serious about protecting the marine environment and addressing the fishing issues.

“Various programs have been introduced,” he says.

“Nevertheless,” Zhang adds, “implementation is a challenge, and whether these efforts can be sustained is an important question.”

John McManus, a professor of marine biology and fisheries at the Rosenthiel School of the University of Miami, also takes a more positive view.

McManus, who documented the destruction of coral reefs by Chinese fishermen searching for giant clams, says that “the policy paper from China looks promising.”

But he also notes that China has continued with dredging and filling in a contested portion of the South China Sea’s Paracel Islands, “probably for military purposes.”

This would indicate that China has no intention of dismantling the military facilities that it has constructed on a number of disputed islands in the South China Sea. And dredging has been one of several sources of environmental degradation in this vast sea.

On a cautious note, Jay Batongbacal, an associate professor at the College of Law at the University of the Philippines, says that “it’s really too early to tell whether any serious steps have been taken toward either stopping the overfishing, undertaking any joint development, or proposing environmental (protection policies) either in relation to the BRI or the South China Sea.”

“No actions have been taken so far that can be characterized as firm indicators that the BRI is taking off in the Philippines,’ says Batongbacal, who heads his university’s Institute for Marine Affairs.

Bill Hayton, a journalist who has closely studied South China Sea developments in recent years, says that “yes, there have been some noises about controlling bad fishing practices.”

“But at the same time,” Hayton says, “the Chinese government is still subsidizing fishing crews to do the stuff that they apparently want to control.”

Sun Yun, a senior associate at the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Stimson Center, contends that “China’s actions run counter to the environmental sustainability goals outlined in its vision statement.”

She says that “the glossy rhetoric of sustainable and equitable development is…a ploy to achieve more favorable Chinese access to markets across the globe.”

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.


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