COVID-19 has brought an immense disruption to the world, including to China — where the case was first found in the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2019. But, just how COVID-19 has disrupted China’s Belt and Road Initiative so far?
There are at least three ways the COVID-19 as well as its implications impact the Belt and Road Initiative and its projects. First, through travel restriction and quarantine for workers. Second, limited supply. Third, tendency of Belt and Road countries to maintain domestic stability.
Travel Restriction and Quarantine for Workers
Days before the Chinese New Year in 2020, many Chinese workers working in the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail project in Indonesia flew back to China to celebrate the festive with their families. However, after the celebration of the Chinese New Year came to an end, many faced travel restriction and quarantine — and barred temporarily to leave their hometown and country.
These workers range from low-skilled workers to people in managerial and planning position. With many of those working in Belt and Road projects, not only in Indonesia, but also in other countries are temporarily barred to leave, it is expected that this will bring delays to the projects.
With domestic workers in China are also being temporarily laid-off, materials produced in Chinese factories are also halted from being produced. Hence, trade of materials from China to many Belt and Road countries is also come into a halt — statistically, many Belt and Road projects source majority of their materials from China. With materials are not being delivered in time, it is expected that the projects will be further delayed.
In the long run, countries will struggle to stabilize their economies in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak. Many of them are expected to prioritize their domestic stability. China is not an exception. Paul Haenle (2020), writes that
China’s economic standstill in the first quarter of 2020 will undoubtedly prompt a government response, likely in the form of interest rate cuts, increased lending, and fiscal stimulus measures. Even if the economy recovers, the government will face pressure to invest resources domestically rather than overseas.
This (the outbreak) too, could be capitalized by countries that already wanted to “abandon unsuccessful or politically unpopular projects” to do it now. Quick and less painful.
China’s Belt and Road will undoubtedly outlive COVID-19 pandemic. What China has to ensure is whether the friendship of Belt and Road countries is stronger than their fear to the pandemic.