Democracy in everyday life: there is a new World Bank
In a 2013 speech to the press in Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi reference the past glory of the ancient Silk Road, a trade route that once linked Europe to China and dominated international markets. Reflecting on the glory of the since-expired trade route, Xi proposed a major infrastructure project that would revive land trade routes between China, Central Asia and Europe: an economic belt.
About a month later, Xi traveled to Indonesia and ad the creation of a new maritime silk route. The project would build and modernize ports along the already well-traveled maritime corridor between the Indian Ocean and China.
So began the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s main infrastructure project to redirect world trade through China in the hope of becoming the new global superpower. In this project, China is providing loans to finance the creation of new infrastructure – deep-water ports, high-speed rail systems, bridges, highways, pipelines and fiber optic networks – in the countries of the global South. The project spans three continents and reaches over 60% of the world’s population.
Last Friday President Joe Biden discussed the implementation of a new program with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to counter the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, proposing “a similar initiative, leveraging democratic states, helping communities around the world who, in fact, need help.”
Biden’s proposal recognizes a real threat posed by China to the world order. Previously, countries seeking loans for development projects had to meet strict World Bank conditions for loan recipients. These are often structural adjustment, monetary reform and austerity programs.
But China is not forcing countries to meet these standards. Instead, it offers loans to countries that cannot repay them. Many of these recipient countries are regularly plagued by corruption and stagnant economies. that would prevent them from receiving a loan from the World Bank.
This type of predatory loan is called debt trap diplomacy.. Rather than defaulting on loans, these developing countries lease ports and roads from China. In doing so, China gains power over recipient countries, holding them hostage through their debt. Experts believe China’s grand strategy is to create a Pearl necklace – a network of Chinese naval bases which will allow China to control the Indian Ocean.
While many Western observers fear this project will propel China as the world’s only economic superpower, the project constitutes a more fundamental threat to democracy.
The World Bank, in some cases, works to lobby countries to protect human rights and implement procedural democracy. By establishing these conditions as conditions for loans, the World Bank has used development finance as a means to encourage democratic development throughout the South.
Unlike World Bank loans, some of which are conditioned on ethical governance, human rights protections, and some level of democracy, China’s loans demand little from recipient countries. In fact, the nations involved in the Belt and Road Initiative are extremely oppressive and autocratic.
China’s minimum requirements for recipient countries therefore have allowed many countries to maintain their autocratic structure rather than democratize because they previously had to receive development loans, threatening the diplomatic power of the former World Bank.