China's "One Belt, One Road" infrastructure building spree may well entice $100 billion a year in investments, as analysts believe it will.
But it was off to a slow start last year, according to new data that arrives just before 28 heads of state gather in Beijing this weekend for China's Belt and Road conference, where President Xi Jinping will speak.
China's investment in the nearly 60 countries in the Belt and Road program fell by 2% last year, according to the Financial Times' distillation of commerce ministry data.
The total non-financial foreign direct investment into the countries—a category that includes the new power plants, ports, and highways at the core of China's diplomatic effort—totaled $14.5 billion. That seems large, but it isn't so much when compared to the record $45.6 billion China spent in the U.S. last year, or the $160 billion total it spent globally in 2016 on non-financial outbound investments.
The tense question is whether China's state-owned companies are joining the projects, whose economical viability has so far taken a backseat to Xi's political push for greater influence across central Asia into the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, where many Belt and Road projects exist. There are reports of banks and SOEs (state-owned enterprises) dragging their feet.
Chinese officials push back at these reports. The ministry overseeing state-owned companies said 47 SOEs are involved in more than 1,600 projects. Meanwhile, skyrocketing overseas bank lending last year suggested a buildup of Belt and Road investments. The FT interviewed a Chinese researcher who made the point that Belt and Road funds travel through intermediary countries before reaching their destination, making direct investment data unreliable. Instead, he admonished, look at all the heads of state arriving in Beijing for this weekend's conference to judge the program.
The truth about Belt and Road's progress likely sits between the two interpretations. Xi has prioritized it, and Chinese banks and companies are widely expected to fall in line.