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Geopolitical risks associated with giant infrastructure projects: are diversified sea routes more sustainable?

By Vince Hooper - posted Wednesday, 1 November 2023

Russian leader Vladimir Putin received a warm welcome at a global summit in Beijing, where China and Russia reaffirmed their solidarity. This was hosted by China's President Xi Jinping to mark the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), BUT is China’s infrastructure bet worth it?

In a world increasingly defined by economic globalization and connectivity, infrastructure has become the backbone of international relations and trade. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China's ambitious plan to create a vast network of transportation and infrastructure across Asia, Europe, and Africa, is perhaps the most prominent example of how a nation's quest for dominance can translate into vast infrastructural projects. However, as we delve into the realms of geopolitics, cost-benefit analysis, and associated risks, it is imperative to ask: Are these colossal infrastructural endeavors worth the investment? Are diversified sea routes a more cost-effective and less risky alternative? And, what is the way forward for global infrastructure development within the context of very unstable geopolitical dynamics?

The Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, has taken center stage in the world of geopolitics. It aims to build a network of roads, railways, ports, and pipelines that will connect China with about 150 countries, accounting for about 70% of the world's population. The scope of this project is monumental, with an estimated cost of $4-8 trillion and rising, depending on various sources, making it one of the largest infrastructure investments in history.


Proponents of the BRI argue that it offers several significant benefits. First and foremost, it promises to boost economic development in participating countries. The construction of new infrastructure can create jobs and stimulate economic growth. Furthermore, by connecting previously isolated regions, the BRI aims to facilitate trade and foster international cooperation. Critics, however, suggest that the benefits of the BRI are not evenly distributed and often favor China's interests. They point to examples where host countries have incurred massive debt, leading to concerns about sovereignty and economic dependence.

The geopolitics surrounding the BRI are complex and multifaceted. China's increasing influence in the regions through which the BRI passes has sparked concerns among other world powers. The project challenges the global balance of power, prompting some nations, such as the United States and India, to seek alternative strategies and alliances. The political implications of the BRI are evident, but the economic consequences are equally significant.

The cost of such a mammoth infrastructure project is staggering. It's not just the initial investment, but the ongoing maintenance and operational expenses that must be considered. These costs have led some to question whether the benefits of the BRI justify the price tag. The economics of the initiative are marred by concerns about debt sustainability, transparency, and the potential for host countries to fall into a debt trap.

A prime example of these concerns can be seen in Sri Lanka. In 2017, Sri Lanka handed over the Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease after struggling to service the debt incurred from its construction. This move raised alarm bells among other nations that worry about losing control of critical infrastructure assets. Similarly, Pakistan's economic stability has been called into question due to the heavy debt incurred from BRI projects.

This is where the concept of diversified sea routes comes into play. While the BRI focuses heavily on land-based infrastructure, sea routes offer an alternative means of connecting nations and facilitating trade. For centuries, the seas have been the lifeblood of global commerce. Diversified sea routes can provide a more flexible and cost-effective approach to international trade and connectivity.

Sea routes do not require the same level of upfront investment as land-based infrastructure. Additionally, maritime routes can adapt to changing trade dynamics more easily, offering resilience in the face of shifting geopolitical circumstances. This adaptability can be a key advantage, especially in an era marked by uncertainty and rapid technological change.


In the context of diversified sea routes, the United States has been promoting its Indo-Pacific Strategy as an alternative to the BRI. This strategy seeks to bolster existing regional partnerships and encourage infrastructure development in a manner that respects the sovereignty and financial stability of host countries. By emphasizing transparency, accountability, and sustainability, the Indo-Pacific Strategy aims to provide a counterbalance to the concerns associated with the BRI.

However, it's important to recognize that sea routes, too, come with their own set of challenges and risks. Geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, piracy in some regions, and the potential environmental impacts of increased shipping traffic all raise concerns. Moreover, the maintenance and security of sea lanes are critical, as they can be disrupted by natural disasters or international conflicts.

The question then becomes, what is the way forward for global infrastructure development? The answer is likely a combination of land-based and sea-based approaches. Diversification is key to ensuring global connectivity, resilience, and economic growth within the context of multidimensional sustainability.

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About the Author

Dr Vince Hooper is an associate professor at the Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University, Saudi Arabia.

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