Belt and Road in Latin America: A regional game changer?

PEPE ZHANG (ATLANTIC COUNCIL)

With one hundred and thirty-one countries signing on, and with more than $575 billion worth of investments mobilized, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could mark a paradigm shift in infrastructure development around the world.1 Will it help to advance countries’ prosperity through improved interconnectivity, or is it primarily focused on extending China’s reach? The answer is neither simple nor binary. Much depends on how BRI projects are conceptualized, implemented, and enforced, and which interests are driving these actions.

At a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, supporters and critics of BRI battle over the program’s intentions and consequences—both sides claim to have abundant evidence. According to recent estimates, global trade could grow up to 6.2 percent on the back of fully implemented BRI transport projects, bringing up to 2.9 percent real-income gain.2 But highly publicized cases in Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and the Maldives have given rise to concerns about debt sustainability, project delays, and transparency.

Four characteristics and emerging trends will determine the impact of BRI on Latin America in the years to come, with each potentially defining the region’s infrastructure and overall economic development. That is why this issue brief produces recommendations for regional governments and the business community—as well as the United States—for how to effectively engage the massive, diverse, and evolving initiative that is BRI, six years after its official launch in September 2013.

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