This month marks five years since Chinese President Xi Jinping laid out his vision for the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s sprawling infrastructure push spanning dozens of countries, during a pair of visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia. BRI is less a concrete, well-defined plan and more an umbrella term for a jumble of China-backed projects involving myriad goals, many of them purely commercial. China has an oversize industrial base to keep humming, plus a vast labor pool to keep busy, at a time when it’s entering a prolonged phase of slowing growth. And it has proved adept at combining diplomatic influence with the lending power of its state-owned banks to pry open new opportunities for its firms abroad.
However, a large number of prominent BRI projects appear commercially dubious, at best. Indeed, Chinese firms have been able to win so many contracts so easily in part because BRI is littered with projects that were unable to attract investment from other sources.