IMF aims to nudge Xi Silk Road plan away from spending spree

Lagarde and Yi open a joint ‘Capacity Development Centre’ that will provide training on policy and economics


BEIJING • The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is cautiously climbing aboard President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure plan, with the goal of preventing it from becoming a wasteful splurge on white-elephant projects.

MD Christine Lagarde and People’s Bank of China governor Yi Gang yesterday jointly opened a joint “Capacity Development Centre” that will provide training on policy and economics. Lagarde announced its opening at a joint conference in Beijing that the IMF sponsored with the central bank and others.

Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, first proposed in 2013 and elevated to an official policy enshrined in the Communist Party’s constitution, involves spending as much as US$1.3 trillion (RM5.04 trillion) by 2027 on railways, roads, ports and power grids, Morgan Stanley estimates. The risk is that the plan, which would build a modern-day Silk Road connecting China with Asia, Europe and Africa through a series of infrastructure projects, becomes a boondoggle that drives up debt in countries where it already is high.

“The first challenge is ensuring that Belt and Road only travels where it is needed,” Lagarde said at the conference.

“With any large-scale spending there is sometimes the temptation to take advantage of the project selection and bidding process. Experiences from across the globe show that there is always a risk of potentially failed projects and the misuse of funds.”

China has been ramping up its Belt and Road Initiative. Since Xi announced the project, billions of dollars of Chinese investment has been committed to build railways, roads, ports and power plants.

He’s touted the plan as a way to foster development and economic integration while critics question the project’s financial viability and express concern about Beijing’s push to spread its influence west.

Separately, the World Bank said in a report yesterday that in East Asia and the Pacific, parts of which are included in the Belt and Road plan, public finance remains the largest source of funding for infrastructure.

Sudhir Shetty, the lender’s chief economist for the region, told reporters yesterday at a briefing in Jakarta that there should be safeguards with respect to countries taking money from China under the Belt and Road plan, citing “issues of debt sustainability”.

He said there were questions about how costly the funding is as well as the transparency of the terms for the borrowings.

The Belt and Road project risks saddling eight countries with unsustainable debts, including Pakistan and Mongolia, according to a study last month by the Centre for Global Development in Washington.

“We’re concerned about China’s growing lending on the One Belt, One Road around the world,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday in Washington, referring to another name for the Chinese initiative. “We’re concerned in certain areas where countries can’t necessarily afford the loans.”

Lagarde also warned on debt. “In countries where public debt is already high, careful management of financing terms is critical,” she said. “This will protect both China and partner governments from entering into agreements that will cause financial difficulties in the future.”

That’s where the IMF may be able to use its long-standing experience via the new Capacity Development Centre, backed by US$50 million of funding from China and initiated by the central bank. Its courses will be designed to train officials from Belt and Road, China and other countries on macroeconomic issues.

“The IMF remains well-positioned to provide guidance in these areas, particularly by helping countries improve their overall public financial management,” said Lagarde, referring also to environment standards, dispute resolution and e-procurement systems.

She urged China to improve the transparency of its decision making on the project, such as by creating a “one-stop shop” that provides information to stakeholders.