FOR MANY 2020 skeptics of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have called it over-publicized and too broad. President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy is a blend of economic engagement, diplomacy and shrewd branding. He intended to seize the historic moment, as the American leadership stumbled, to shape a world order more to China’s liking. The estimated cost of improving global infrastructure, a tangle of metaphorical Silk Roads circling the world by land and (even more) by sea, has been $ 6 billion.

The demands made for and against the BIS were exaggerated. China has said it is showing countries the way to a new kind of transformational development. Critics in America have said that China is exporting its dystopian authoritarianism and deliberately trapping poor countries through debt. Yet the shine was coming out of the BIS even before the coronavirus pandemic sharply slowed global growth.

The flagship project was the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with investments and loans estimated at $ 60 billion. He produced a few badly needed power plants, but largely failed. Projects are put on hold and debts are renegotiated. The CPEC paid little attention to Pakistan’s precarious fiscal and balance of payments situation, or its thorny policies. Almost none of the promised industrial cooperation will take place. Far from transforming the relationship, CPEC has exposed its limits.

Elsewhere, from Malaysia to Sri Lanka to the Maldives, the scale of China’s economic activity, and its supervision of corrupt rulers, has engendered local resentment. This, according to Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington think tank, has undermined China’s economic and strategic goals. The pandemic has only made matters worse. Around the world, although generally out of sight, China is facing debt refinancing and relaxing terms on many loans. In 2021, the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will report more bad loans and even face discussions about its downgrade. With a sharp reduction in loans, Chinese infrastructure projects in the poorest countries will be smaller.

Still, reports of BRI’s death from covid-19 are exaggerated, says Eyck Freymann, author of a new book on the project. In the first half of 2021, he will receive a big boost. If you haven’t heard of the “Silk Road of Health” in China, you will soon. Think about vaccine diplomacy.

China has already approved three vaccines for emergency use. With clinical trials underway in Brazil and Pakistan, they could beat the Westerners in the market. They will also be cheaper, according to Freymann. An American vaccine, made by Moderna, could cost more than $ 70 per treatment, more than developing countries can afford on a large scale. China is already offering one of its vaccines to BRI partners such as Mexico and the Philippines, along with help paying for it. There are regulatory and logistical challenges, and the vaccines themselves may not be effective. But Xi hopes to help China escape its reputation as a predatory lender and source of the coronavirus itself, as he takes credit for helping grateful countries along the Belt and Road.

This article appeared in the China section of The World print edition in 2021 under the headline “The road to health? “


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