SINGAPORE (Oct 1): Neo-colonialism. A new version of the Marshall Plan. These are just two descriptions of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s ambitious plan to invest in infrastructure projects — ports, railways, power plants — that will be critical developments in the participating countries. And, a year ago, the word on the street was Singapore was not going to be a beneficiary of the billions of dollars Beijing was expected to dole out as part of BRI.

The BRI blueprint spans Southeast Asia, and stretches west towards Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Projects include a US$6 billion ($8.2 billion) high-speed railway between Laos and China that is partly financed by Beijing. In Cambodia, Chinese companies have invested in several hydropower plants as well as been involved in a deal to build a US$1.8 billion expressway. According to Oxford Economics, Chinese investments in the BRI project totalled US$402 billion in the first half of this year. Chinese direct investments in foreign companies and infrastructure assets totalled US$146 billion, or more than double what it was before the initiative was launched in 2013.

Yet, with those dollars have come controversy, and concerns about the debt burdens shouldered by the countries the investments were meant to help. A case in point is the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Colombo was forced to lease the US$1.5 billion deepwater port to China after it was completed, as it was unable to keep up with the loan payments. Sri Lanka reportedly owed Chinese state-controlled firms more than US$8 billion. Indeed, a large part of China’s BRI investments have been in the form of project financing, rather than foreign direct investment, according to Oxford Economics. “That is because such involvement is more obvious in the case of infrastructure development, which is a key aspect of the [BRI] initiative,” note economists He Tianjie and Louis Kuijs. “Also, political considerations make many [BRI] countries unwilling to accept large-scale Chinese ownership of their infrastructure.”

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