If a butterfly in Nairobi flaps its wings, would it set off a tornado in Beijing?
Last month, what happened in the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, certainly would alarm some policy makers in Beijing. On November 20, news broke that UNEP’s Director Erik Solheim resigned after a major scandal that threatened to undermine the agency’s legitimacy as the world’s leading multilateral environmental body. Most of the allegations against Solheim were not China related. An internal UN audit revealed his abnormally high air travel expenses (half a million US dollars in less than two years) and breaching of UN rules (allowing some staff members to work from Europe when they need to be based in Kenya). But the Guardian report also highlighted a side complaint. The United States, and some UNEP employees, had raised questions about his perceived coziness with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
As recently as Nov 5, Solheim was in Beijing celebrating achievements of the International Coalition for Green Development on the Belt and Road. “China could share its green development experience with other countries through dialogue,” he said, and envisioned three roles for the Coalition: promoting green finance, setting up basic principles and rules for BRI, and serving as third party facilitators for green development in host countries. Ironically, it turned out that the Coalition was at the center of American misgiving. According to the disclosed list of questions posed by the Permanent Mission of the US to the UN in April this year, the US questioned the relationship between the agency and the Coalition, especially the justification for “an organization under a universal governance model devoting its resources to promote a plan exclusive to an individual (country).”
The episode underscores the increasingly divisive international space wherein third-party actors need to navigate to position themselves properly vis-à-vis the BRI. The heightened tension between the US and China over the infrastructure program makes the balancing act especially challenging. During Solheim’s brief tenure at the agency, UNEP entered a partnership with China’s environment ministry to promote “Green BRI” and has helped soften the initiative’s international image. That’s probably why upon his disgraced departure, the ministry’s spokesperson had only nice words to say about him: “Mr. Solheim has paid much attention to and worked hard on south-south environmental collaboration and environmental protection in developing countries.”
If the exchange around UNEP was just a skirmish (Solheim’s oust was largely self-inflicted), what happened at the Papua New Guinea APEC summit was almost an open confrontation. Immediately after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s address to the APEC CEO Summit promoting the BRI as “an open platform for cooperation”, US Vice President Mike Pence told the same audience that countries “should not accept foreign debt that could compromise their sovereignty.” He even went on and dubbed the BRI a “constricting belt and one-way road.”
For decades, the West has offered financing to developing countries on conditions of trade liberalization and market reform. For Pence to remind countries of the need to preserve their sovereignty, therefore, is a bit disingenuous. Nonetheless, the “debt trap” narrative sticks. Almost at the same time as Pence was warning against the BRI, the newly elected President of the Maldives, in his inaugural speech, blamed Chinese loans for his country’s “precarious” financial situation and signaled distancing from a relationship that his predecessor had cultivated.
APEC quickly became another victim of the US-China animosity. The annual Summit on Nov 18 failed to produce a joint communiqué, a disappointing departure from its 20-year tradition, due to US-China disagreement over languages about global trade reforms. A narrative quickly developed around how China sabotaged the whole thing, not just with its insistence on policy arguments, but also with its “aggressive, bullying, paranoid and weird” behavior at the event. In contrast, the Trump administration’s own position of dismantling existing global economic mechanisms such as the WTO and its possible contribution to the deadlock did not receive as much scrutiny.
Chinese response to the criticism was to reiterate its position that Asia-Pacific development is not to be a zero-sum game and a binary “win/lose” choice, and that disputes should be resolved under “mutually agreed rules”. Researchers and think tank specialists wrote articles on Chinese platforms trying to refute the “debt trap” accusation, using data from the IMF and CIA to argue that Chinese loans constitute minor portions of the debt burden of countries such as the Maldives and should not be scapegoated for their economic difficulties.
As third-parties struggle to (re)align themselves with the BRI, the landscape of international development finance is quietly being redrawn. Ahead of the APEC summit, the US, Japan and Australia announced a Trilateral Partners infrastructure fund that would support infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific region that “adhere to international standards and principles for development, including openness, transparency and fiscal sustainability.” The fund is widely read as a counter-offer to the BRI. As a first step, a financing package for Papua New Guinea to expand electricity and Internet coverage, worth USD 1.7 billion, was unveiled on the day of the summit. If the BRI has redirected global attention to the developing world’s massive infrastructure gap, it could be one of its more positive effects. The question is if, as a price of accessing much needed funds, developing countries would have to pick sides in a fight they don’t want.