Can the G7’s Build Back Better World compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative?
– G7 leaders announce a new global infrastructure initiative
– The plan aims to help close the infrastructure gap in the developing world
– Project to serve as a counterweight to China’s Belt and Road Initiative
– Sustainability and private sector involvement core to the plan
Following the expansion of Chinese-led projects in many emerging markets over the past decade, the G7 has unveiled its own initiative to support global infrastructure development, dubbed Build Back Better World (B3W).
Announced at a G7 meeting in June, the B3W will focus on four main areas: climate, health, digital technology and gender. Its overarching goal is to catalyse hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure development in low- and middle-income countries.
Beyond this outline, little information has been released about how the B3W initiative will operate in practice. However, it is clear that it responds to two broad, interconnected aims.
On the one hand, the B3W will constitute “a values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership”, according to a fact sheet put out by the US government. It seeks to help narrow the more than $40trn infrastructure gap in the developing world, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, the B3W will serve as a counterweight to China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with the fact sheet highlighting that it will be a means of “strategic competition with China”.
BRI pivots away from infrastructure
Launched in 2013 and initially intended to revive ancient Silk Road trade routes between Eurasia and China, the BRI grew to become a far-reaching plan for transnational infrastructure development, linking countries and continents through land and sea corridors and industrial clusters.
The BRI caused consternation among G7 countries from the moment of its inception. This was due in part to the fact that it was widely seen as a way to expand Chinese geopolitical influence.
For example, in December 2017 Sri Lanka formally ceded 70% control of Hambantota Port to a Chinese state-owned firm on a 99-year lease after the government was unable to service Chinese loans used to build the $1.3bn strategic gateway on the Indian Ocean.
Concerns have also been raised over the lack of transparency in terms of lending, environmental and social impacts, and corruption.
However, some of these apprehensions have been eased by recent developments. As OBG has covered previously, since the Covid-19 pandemic the BRI has increasingly moved away from big-ticket infrastructure projects, with China placing a greater focus on sustainable, digital and health-related aspects – the so-called green, digital and health silk roads.
This pivot has meant that the countries participating in the BRI are receiving fewer financial resources: from a peak of more than $125bn in total spending in 2015, China spent around $47bn on BRI projects last year.
Mind the gap
China’s shift away from infrastructure projects has left a gap which the B3W is aiming to fill.
A key aspect of the B3W is the mobilisation of private sector capital through the expansion of existing development finance tools.
This reflects an awareness that what the US administration calls “status quo funding and financing approaches” are insufficient to close the vast infrastructure gap which continues to stymie development in emerging economies around the world.
According to the Global Infrastructure Hub, a G20 initiative, the world is facing a $400bn gap in infrastructure investment this year, a figure that could cumulatively grow to $15trn by 2040 if current rates of spending continue.
Another key pillar of B3W is sustainability, a term that has become a watchword globally in light of Covid-19 and escalating ecological disasters.
In this respect, the B3W’s aims dovetail with growing appetite among private sector investors for green projects – evidenced by the record $269.5bn in green bond issuance last year, according to the Climate Bonds Initiative, a figure which some expect to double in 2021.
Among other factors, this would suggest that the B3W is well placed to capitalise on investment trends.
Many emerging economies are in urgent need of funds to drive their Covid-19 recoveries, and are waiting expectantly for further details of how the initiative will operate. However, while the principles enshrined in recent announcements are certainly encouraging, more details will need to emerge promptly in order to demonstrate that the B3W is more than a memorable acronym.