World News

The World, Built by China

Posted November 18, 2018 5:07 p.m. EST

Seven dams generate almost half of Cambodia’s electricity. China built and paid for all of them.

Sri Lanka borrowed more than $1 billion from China for a strategic deepwater port, but it could not repay the money. The port is now controlled by China, which is leasing it for the next 99 years.

South Africa turned to China for $1.5 billion for a coal-fired power plant. It is one of at least 63 such plants financed by China around the world, which collectively pollute more than Spain.

Zambia tapped China for $94 million to build a soccer stadium of over 50,000 seats.

These are among the more than 600 projects around the world that China has financed to win new friends and develop new markets.

China envisions a vast global network of trade, investment and infrastructure that will reshape financial and geopolitical ties — and bring the rest of the world closer to Beijing.

It is a modern-day version of the Marshall Plan, America’s reconstruction effort after World War II, which created a foundation for enduring military and diplomatic alliances. China’s strategy is bolder, more expensive and far riskier.

Its money does not necessarily come with the usual rules. And the cost, for China and its borrowers alike, can sometimes be too high.

The New York Times examined nearly 600 projects that China helped finance in the last decade, through billions of dollars in grants, loans and investments. Taken together, they show the scope and motivation of China’s strategy:

— 41 pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure help China secure valuable resources.

— 203 bridges, roads and railways create new ways for China to move its goods around the world.

— 199 power plants — for nuclear, natural gas, coal and renewables — give China new markets for its construction and equipment companies.

There are at least 112 countries where China has financed projects. While most fall under its infrastructure plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has pushed beyond those boundaries.

After years of honing its construction skills at home, China is now deploying them abroad, including a series of hydroelectric dams.

In terms of power output, many of them approach or exceed the size of the Hoover Dam.

Geopolitical Goals

China needs friends. And literal bridges can help build figurative ones.

Large ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Malaysia — three countries along a major oil and commerce route from the Mideast and Africa — could someday double as naval logistics hubs.

Beijing is heavily focused on its neighbors, lending them money for extensive road-building projects. Pakistan is running out of money to repay the loans, part of a broader pattern of what critics call China’s “debt trap” diplomacy.

Different Standards

China has a different view when it comes to labor and environmental strictures. To staff overseas projects, Chinese companies have flown in their own workers by the thousands, drawing complaints that they are doing little to create local jobs. Safety standards have been uneven.

And Beijing continues to export polluting technologies like coal-fired power plants, even as such projects have become unpopular in China.

Risky Moves

Western governments and multinationals generally steer clear of politically volatile countries. The Chinese government has been less skittish, lending heavily to nations like Venezuela, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

But China’s lending is not usually largesse. Countries that run into financial trouble must renegotiate their loans, putting them deeper into debt. Sometimes projects are left in limbo.

Ecuador spent over $1 billion to prepare a site for a $12 billion Chinese refinery that was supposed to be finished in 2013. It is stalled.

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Methodology

This analysis focused on projects valued at over $25 million that were partly or completely funded by a Chinese entity in the last 10 years. Projects that rehabilitate or expand existing infrastructure are included, in addition to new construction projects.

Data Sources

In addition to the Times’ own reporting, information on these projects was compiled from the following sources:

The Construction Intelligence Center

The Inter-American Dialogue’s China-Latin America Finance Database

China’s Global Energy Finance, from the Global Economic Governance Initiative at Boston University

Reconnecting Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies

China Global Investment Tracker from the American Enterprise Institute

The Global Chinese Official Finance Dataset from AidData at the College of William and Mary

International Rivers