There are two ways of looking at China’s US$1-trillion Belt and Road initiative (BRI), which was the subject of a tenth-anniversary summit in Beijing last week. In monetary terms, the project to build and develop infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries is winding down — $4 billion in loans were paid out in 2021, down from a high of more than $85 billion in 2016 (see go.nature.com/497z0bo). But when it comes to scientific cooperation, the trend is in the opposite direction.
In 2018 and 2019, Nature sent teams of reporters to countries involved in the BRI to explore the project’s science aspects. We spoke to more than 100 people, including researchers and policymakers, to get a measure of China’s ambition to hugely expand its international research collaboration, redrawing the global science map. These collaborations were being forged in addition to, not instead of, China’s research links with Europe and the United States.
Those ambitions remain undimmed. The Chinese premier, Xi Jinping, confirmed at the summit that the number of laboratories built across countries participating in the BRI will rise to 100 in the next five years. And a host of international networking conferences are scheduled for the remainder of 2023 and 2024 that will bring together researchers in fields as diverse as agriculture, intellectual property and nuclear technology.
Build a sustainable Belt and Road
The difference now is that this is happening as researchers in China and in the United States and Western Europe gradually pull back from one another. National concerns over matters such as espionage, free trade and military threats have spilt over into restrictions on research.
As geopolitical tensions continue to rise, the world is once again aligning with two poles of power. In these columns we repeatedly make the case for global research collaboration — not least because, without it, there can be no lasting solutions to the interconnected economic, environmental and political crises we face. These are encapsulated in the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Countries are connected to each other as never before. Researchers need to do all they can to keep lines of communication open.
In the space of a decade, China has built or upgraded ports in Greece and Sri Lanka and introduced high-speed rail to Kenya and Indonesia. Researchers and students at Tongji University in Shanghai, China, designed the headquarters of the African Union secretariat in Addis Ababa. China is also co-funding construction of the nearby headquarters of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Such assistance is undoubtedly filling unmet needs, but the BRI’s implementation has not been without drawbacks. Most of the financing China has provided is in loans, which many countries are now struggling to repay in the face of the cost-of-living crisis that has followed the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And investments facilitated by the BRI have not been particularly green.
The United Kingdom needs to welcome international researchers to thrive
Much of the infrastructure is in ecologically sensitive areas or was built with weak environmental standards. Some projects have involved little or no consultation with affected communities, according to a report published last year by a team at the University of Cambridge, UK (see go.nature.com/3fsei8v). And although China says it stopped funding the construction of coal-fired power plants abroad in 2022, emissions from fossil-fuel-powered plants that it has already built add the equivalent of 245 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year.
But in science, the BRI is coming into its own. In 2019, Nature travelled to a large construction site where a new university was being built. The Pak-Austria Fachhochschule, a collaboration between Austria, China and Pakistan, opened in 2020. Its first students will graduate next year, and it has already opened collaborative research centres in artificial intelligence, critical minerals and railway engineering. In Beijing, Nature talked to some of the 200 international doctoral students selected annually and funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the UNESCO World Academy of Sciences, based in Trieste, Italy. The scheme now supports 300 new PhD scholars a year.
Last month, in a collaboration between CAS, the National Museums of Kenya and the Sino–Africa Joint Research Center near Nairobi, researchers published the first in a 31-volume study called Flora of Kenya, which will catalogue nearly 7,000 plant species. And this month saw the announcement that the space agencies of Pakistan and Azerbaijan will join other international partners in China’s lunar research-station project, which aims to build a permanent base on the Moon in the 2030s.
How China is redrawing the map of world science
The Alliance of International Science Organizations is a network of science institutions that advises on science policy for the BRI. Based at CAS, it has global representation. It organizes PhD scholarships in China, as well as funding calls for projects between its 67 institutional members, spread across 48 countries — up from 37 members in 2019. The UN’s science and education agency UNESCO is involved, as are a small number of European science academies. More academies from Western Europe should consider joining. US academies should also look at participating; currently none are signed up.
Last month, the European Union, the United States, India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced plans for their own BRI-style infrastructure project connecting Europe, the Middle East and India. This might also include research cooperation. The scheme will provide opportunities for participating countries, and is to be welcomed. But the BRI is not going away and the West should engage with its research programmes.
China wants to share its experiences of how to escape poverty, having made great strides towards that goal in a generation. But to tackle global economic, environmental and political issues, policymaking and governance need to be research-based and multilateral. China and its Western partners must take a more sophisticated approach to how they deal with one another amid rising geopolitical tensions. Stopping person-to-person contact and ending longstanding institutional research relationships is not the way to address climate change, prevent wars, or avoid or tackle another global financial crisis.