Diplomacy writer Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject matter experts, political practitioners, and strategic thinkers around the world for their diverse insights into U.S. policy in Asia. This conversation with Jacinta Chen — the Downing Pomona Scholar at the University of Cambridge and former program assistant at the Asian Community Policy Institute (ASPI) in New York City — is Conversation Number 345 in the “Looking Across the Pacific Series.”
Explain the motivation behind ASPI’s “Belt and Road Initiative Toolkit”.
This toolkit is based on the 2019 ASPI Report “Mobility in the Belt and Road Initiative“ (BRI), which made 12 policy recommendations to address major challenges facing Belt and Road projects. Primarily examining infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, ASPI found that communication between Chinese project companies and affected people is often indirect, scarce, one-sided, or non-existent, leaving local communities without recourse. The lack of comprehensive and transparent environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs) has hampered the abilities of Chinese developers and contractors to anticipate and mitigate negative impacts of projects.
To help address these issues from the beginning of the project life cycle, ASPI has developed a “digital toolkit” that shows those affected or involved in BRI projects how to properly conduct stakeholder engagement and assess impacts on the host country’s population and environment.
What does the toolkit reveal about the relations of BRI host countries with China?
Since the establishment of the Belt and Road Initiative, host countries have increasingly looked to Chinese officials, banks and companies to invest in and build large-scale infrastructure projects.
From Global Infrastructure Hub (GIHub) For the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the White House, estimates in the billions of dollars abound for the global infrastructure financing gap. While grants, loans, and technical assistance from existing bilateral and multilateral organizations will partially fill this gap, host country governments also welcome Chinese promises of financing and delivery of “green” and “high-quality” railways, power plants, highways, ports, and more.
Against the backdrop of high-level negotiations, ASPI heard from local communities who are experiencing loss of clean water, food, housing, land, livelihoods, and ancestral graves as a result of the Belt and Road Initiative projects. Although some projects do not meet Chinese and international standards, adequate solutions are not always available to the affected people. The Toolkit provides local stakeholders with useful facts, strategies and resources to support regulatory requirements and protect their own interests.
Examine two important aspects of development under the Belt and Road Initiative: stakeholder participation and environmental and social impact assessments.
The Strategic Policy Institute noted recurring problems arising from the inadequate implementation of stakeholder engagement and ESIA assessments. Chinese contractors, developers and financiers rarely had contact with affected persons and NGOs in and around project sites. Local stakeholders had a hard time naming suitable Chinese representatives—let alone contacting them even when they were forcibly evicted from their homes or lost access to running water. During meetings with local mediators, affected communities were pleased to hear about possible job opportunities and compensation. However, some of these offers never materialised.
Environmental and social impact assessments tend to be opaque or incomplete. Affected persons were largely unaware of the impacts of the final projects because they were not consulted for evaluations and did not submit copies for review. Local experts have expressed concerns about the validity of ESIAs, particularly when proposed mitigation measures have not been taken or monitoring results have not been verified by independent agencies.
Identify the three most important stakeholder expectations for BRI project financiers, developers and contractors.
First, Chinese financiers, developers and contractors must involve a wide range of stakeholders in the planning, implementation and operation of their projects. Drawing on the experiences and perspectives of women, minorities, indigenous peoples, NGOs, researchers, journalists, village leaders and host country authorities can ultimately improve the quality of project designs, reduce risks and enhance benefits – especially for the most vulnerable and affected.
Secondly, Chinese companies, banks and other relevant institutions are required to share accurate, complete and truthful information with all stakeholders. Regular dissemination of project details in local languages—through letters, emails, websites, social media updates, news reports, and other statuses—can build awareness of key supporters, deepen understanding of technical documents such as environmental and social impact assessments, and allow affected families to make informed decisions. on issues related to resettlement and livelihood restoration.
Third, Chinese financiers, developers, and contractors must open channels of cooperation with and do justice to local stakeholders. Inviting affected persons to serve on community coordinating committees, work on projects, or participate in environmental and social monitoring activities can increase Chinese accountability and local participation. The establishment of grievance mechanisms will provide additional means to address host country stakeholders’ questions and concerns, while reducing the opportunity for social unrest.
In what ways can the Belt and Road Initiative Toolkit be beneficial to the policy, business, and social influence communities?
National and sub-national policymakers—in Beijing and the BRI host countries—can compare their laws, policies, and guidance with the international best practices described in the checklist, identify strengths and gaps in their written measures, and identify practical ways to strengthen enforcement. Domestic policymakers can also use the toolkit to track important laws, policies, and guidance issued by the Chinese government, policy banks, commercial banks, and state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
The ASPI toolkit encourages companies to de-risk their projects through appropriate stakeholder engagement and environmental and social impact assessment assessments. It provides Chinese companies with tailored recommendations and a rationale for informing, advising, and working with stakeholders across diverse linguistic, cultural, religious, political, and legal contexts. Companies can even browse the stakeholder directory to connect with in-country experts on environmental and social issues.
Between a step-by-step interactive timeline and glossary, the toolkit serves as a reference guide for social impact organizations and affected communities to advocate for more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable BRI projects. It also promotes pilot initiatives, handbooks and databases of many local and international NGOs to support transnational collaboration and learning.