China’s global infrastructure drive adds focus on sustainability

Following a year of pandemic-related disruptions, there appears to be a greater focus on sustainable, digital and health-related projects; for example, in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the UAE is one of the key participants in the Middle East. Launched in 2013, the BRI is an ambitious international initiative that aims to revive ancient Silk Road trade routes through largescale infrastructure development. By the start of 2020 some 2951 BRI-linked projects – valued at a total of $3.9trn – were planned or under way across the world.

However, as borders closed and lockdowns were imposed, progress stalled on a number of BRI infrastructure developments. In June 2020 China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that 30-40% of BRI projects had been affected by the pandemic, while a further 20% had been “seriously affected”. Restrictions on the flow of Chinese workers and construction supplies were cited as factors behind project suspensions or slowdowns in countries such as Pakistan, Cambodia and Indonesia. However, even as the health crisis resulted in a global drop in overseas investment, China remains firmly committed to the BRI. In November 2020 Meng Wei, a spokesperson for the National Development and Reform Commission – responsible for overseeing BRI projects – insisted on the project’s continuation, but sketched a reformed vision for its future, emphasising three aspects: sustainability, health and technology.

Green Vision

At the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April 2019, China’s President Xi Jinping outlined a vision of “open, green and clean cooperation” guided by the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The need for sustainability has been accentuated by the onset of the pandemic. This focus on sustainable BRI projects dovetails with broader Chinese policy moves, such as the September 2020 announcement that the country was aiming to become carbon neutral by 2060, a goal which will require it to cut emissions by as much as 90%. While it is currently a world-leading emitter of carbon, China has been steadily increasing the contribution of renewables to its energy mix. In 2020 renewables accounted for 57% of China’s total investment in energy infrastructure, up on 2019’s figure of 38%, according to the International Institute of Green Finance.


China is also seeking to expand health-related infrastructure and innovation capacity as part of the BRI. This speaks to the country’s broader push to position itself as a global health leader, an ambition that has been in evidence throughout the pandemic. The BRI has helped to facilitate the distribution of Chinese-produced vaccines to emerging economies. For instance, the UAE, a major recipient of BRI investment, was the first country outside of China to approve the mass use of its Sinopharm vaccine. The partnership between the UAE and China had been strengthening prior to the pandemic; at the Annual Investment Meeting in April 2019 Marwan bin Jassim Al Sarkal, the executive chairman of Sharjah Investment and Development Authority, outlined the emirate’s role in forging stronger economic ties with Chinese investors.


In line with the rapid digitalisation across industries that resulted from social-distancing measures associated with the pandemic, China is placing renewed focus on the BRI as a facilitator of digital and technological innovation. The Digital Silk Road was launched in 2015 under the umbrella of the BRI, and it was associated with digital and space industry-related projects in its early stages. This focus has been expanded to include cloud computing, smart cities, surveillance, e-commerce and digital payments. More recently, it has also taken in diagnostic and track-andtrace capabilities to combat the virus. Looking ahead, the emphasis on sustainability, health care and digital systems is expected to create opportunities for collaborative innovation with the potential to create high-value jobs, develop infrastructure and tackle global challenges, although some observers remain cautious about the proliferation of intrusive surveillance technologies.

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