Is China going green by dumping brown on its BRI partners?

BRI projects continue to worsen environmental risks for partner countries

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File Photo: Xi Jinping in Istana, Singapore, Nov. 2015

File Photo: Xi Jinping in Istana, Singapore, Nov. 2015 (By Associated Press)

NEW DELHI (East Asia Forum) -- The environmental impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been fraught with contradictions. While there are efforts to finance and promote green development through some BRI projects, other projects are raising serious environmental concerns.

The ecological impact of the BRI is worrying not just for the local communities directly affected, but also China’s stature as a responsible global leader. If BRI projects continue to worsen environmental risks for partner countries, to what extent can China’s commitments to green development be taken seriously?

It is not fair to say that China has completely disregarded environmental protection. China is indeed investing in clean technologies, signing multilateral accords to protect biodiversity and engaging in climate-related cooperation. At the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China would take "a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change." But that doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement.

Traditionally China’s developmental projects come with "no strings attached." Unsurprisingly, developing countries receiving Chinese projects tend to side-track their "green responsibilities." In addition, China’s economic policy of "comprehensively deepening reform" requires it to discard low-end technologies (with their high-carbon emissions) for high-end technologies (that work towards carbon reduction).


Workers walk past billboard of Xi Jinping, with Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain, left, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during launch of an ambitious $45 billion economic corridor linking Pakistan’s port city of Gwadar with western China, in Islamabad, Pakistan. (Associated Press Image)

Unfortunately, this has meant that some BRI partners have become markets for the relocation of China’s low-valued processing units, becoming "environmentally unsustainable dumping grounds." This can already be seen taking place in Tajikistan, Pakistan and Malaysia among others.

The relocation of Chinese industries is not only hurting the environment — it is also hurting other economies, especially in Asia’s labour-intensive developing countries, namely Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. If examined from the perspective of development lending, as contested by economist William Easterly, foreign capital to poor or developing countries from rich external powers creates a poverty "trap" for the former. Recently, Malaysia and Myanmar scaled back their engagement with China due to the economic and environmental damage Chinese projects were having.

Though domestically China advocates "ecological civilisation," it is yet to be seen how the same is reflected in BRI projects. Unless China replaces its outdated industrial units with cleaner technology supplements at home and in its overseas businesses, this vision might never materialize.

There are also several environmental concerns associated with China’s resource trade. Various local communities have raised concerns over hurtful environmental policies employed by Chinese mines feeding China’s appetite for minerals. Recently, 65 civil society organizations raised voices against Chinese Development Bank supporting Ghana’s bauxite development because it would have terrible repercussions for Ghana’s forest reserves and overall biodiversity.


A Forum on China–Africa Cooperation was held in Beijing in early September (Associated Press Image)

Another concern arising from China’s race for resources is the threat it poses to the biodiversity of forests. A recent World Wildlife Fund report reported that the BRI infrastructure projects overlap with some of the most protected biodiversities, endangering over 200 species — 39 critically endangered — and almost 2000 Important Bird Areas and 200 eco-regions.

Moreover, new roads in previously untouched tropical forests have increased the likelihood of poaching and illegal logging. China is the largest market for timber and most of the exports come from Russia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. These countries are getting edgy about China putting their biodiversity at risk, especially with respect to the Mongolian oak, the Manchurian ash and the Amur tiger in far eastern Russia.

Although China has directed its international private businesses to selfregulate in response to these criticisms, Chinese businesses have not done much to commit to these guidelines.

The BRI is also worsening environmental risks pertaining to over-harvesting and over-fishing in areas with depleting resources. China’s zealous eyeing of the aqua-based industries is to satisfy both domestic and international concerns — while domestically it has to satiate the growing demand of its population for seafood, internationally its foreign-based fisheries have helped China to earn millions of trade surplus by being the largest exporter of fishery products.

However, overfishing is threatening some sea species like sea cucumbersand sea urchins. Although these activities are receiving harsh global criticism, this has not changed China’s behavior.

It would not be a tall order for China to be mindful and increase its BRI investments in cleaner technology and green industries. Some of the BRI’s financing mechanisms, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank, are multilateral institutions that are committed to sustainable development projects, but so far they have failed to observe adequate environmental standards.


Work site and billboard in Shanghai (Associated Press image)

The setbacks arising from the environmental risks involved with the BRI are neither helping China’s case of being environmentally responsible nor enhancing its global vision. The BRI will be deemed more successful if it succeeds in making China and the BRI’s partner countries heed environmentally sustainable developmental policies.

Despite China’s commitments to share clean technologies, the "environmental and social standards" of BRI investments are substandard. The BRI’s outreach and investments are unprecedented. But its harmful environmental impact could derail China’s attempt at building soft power through the whole project.

Dokku Nagamalleswara Rao and Atmaja Gohain Baruah are research scholars at the Center for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This article first appeared on East Asia Forum, published on Sept. 25, 2018.