The coronavirus will not be fatal for China’s Belt and Road Initiative but it will strike a heavy blow

SCMP

Projects face delays as the coronavirus prevents Beijing from supplying goods and people. And project resources will be diverted as China focuses on its own recovery. But the biggest casualty may be a loss of faith in Chinese-style connectivity

Illustration: Craig Stephens
Illustration: Craig Stephens
Suddenly, a highly infectious virus has become China’s most prominent export. What began on January 3, when China

reported

44 cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, has become the Covid-19 global pandemic. Wuhan, the manufacturing centre that helped to power China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, has become the epicentre of a health crisis

shutting down

many of those projects.

The corridors that facilitate the flow of goods can be conduits for pathogens and disease. As Covid-19 spreads, is the Belt and Road Initiative at risk of becoming an infection thoroughfare?

Chinese officials have been at pains to assure the world that, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in mid-February, the virus will have not have “any negative impact” on belt and road projects. Others have offered assurances that the adverse economic impact is only

temporary

.

Yet the authorities are aware that the outbreak is causing difficulties for overseas projects. On March 2, China Development Bank said it would provide low-cost loans to affected belt-and-road-related companies, although presumably these will go mainly or exclusively to Chinese firms.

Foreign officials are blunter about Covid-19’s impact. In

Bangladesh

, the transport minister warned that a billion-dollar bridge project was under threat. In Nigeria, a major rail project was put on hold. Pakistan’s planning and development minister said the US$62 billion

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

faced delays. Indonesia’s investment minister has also announced delays for the Jakarta-Bandung

high-speed rail project

.

Reports from belt and road projects document a host of problems resulting from Covid-19. Managers, engineers and construction workers in China for the Lunar New Year holiday have been

delayed or prevented from returning

by travel bans and quarantines.

Many projects rely heavily on materials from China but

factory shutdowns

, port closures,

cancelled flights

and blocked roads prevented supplies and equipment from reaching sites. Burmese media described trucks “lined up idly on both sides of the border”. These and other disruptions are causing delays, missed deadlines, increased costs, and are likely to lead to bankruptcies for local contractors.

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