China will likely speed up its Belt and Road projects amid US tensions: Citi

  • China will likely speed up infrastructure projects in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative amid trade tensions with the United States, Citi said in a report Tuesday.
  • Chinese construction, transportation, mining and finance companies are poised to benefit, it said.
  • Citi suggested that China may be forced to modify the project into a "kinder, gentler" version that would sit better with its critics.
Railway workers inspect a Kenya Railways Corp. freight train before departure from the port station in Mombasa, Kenya, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. 
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Railway workers inspect a Kenya Railways Corp. freight train before departure from the port station in Mombasa, Kenya, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. 

China will likely speed up infrastructure projects in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative amid trade tensions with the United States, Citi said in a report Tuesday.

Several Chinese companies and various sectors, including mining and transportation, are poised to benefit from that development, the report said.

The Asian giant announced the BRI in 2013, aimed at recreating and modernizing ancient Silk Road trade routes. It has become the signature foreign policy program of Chinese President Xi Jinping's government.

The program is an ambitious infrastructure project aimed at connecting more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East through overland and maritime routes.

But it has been widely criticized, amid concerns that the high debt incurred for projects might become unsustainable for countries such as Sri Lanka, and others could face risks due to political changes, including those in Malaysia.

China has elevated the program to a top national strategy, Citi said, adding that tensions with the U.S. mean Beijing is prepared to take a different approach in the construction projects in order to expand its influence in countries that are part of the initiative.

China will likely "escalate the loan and shorten the project approval" process to quicken the pace of infrastructure building "so as to diversify trade and economic activities there away from the U.S.," Citi analysts said in the report.

"We believe the BRI will primarily benefit the railway sector, given China's distinct advantages globally in terms of technology and cost in railway infrastructure," they said, noting that building of power plants, telecommunications facilities and ports should also increase.

'Kinder, gentler'

Some Chinese firms stand to benefit from this, the report said, stating the examples of China Railway Group and China Railway Construction.

Others include Chinese train manufacturer CRRC — which produces rolling stock such as railroad cars, wagons and coaches — as well as equipment maker China Railway Signal & Communication, Citi said in its report. All are listed in Hong Kong.

Some industries are also set to make inroads.

"We see near-term opportunities for sectors such as commodity and mining, transportation and logistics, as well as finance," Citi said, citing specific firms such as Chinese oil and gas company PetroChina and the Bank of China, both listed in Hong Kong. Shanghai-listed Conch Cement is also "well positioned to benefit from the initiative," it said.

In a separate Citi report assessing the progress of the Belt and Road Initiative after its first five years, the U.S. bank suggested that China may be forced to modify the BRI into a "kinder, gentler" version that would sit better with its critics.

Some challenges include the heavy reliance on the U.S. dollar in order to fund the infrastructure projects, Citi said. Other pressures China continues to face include criticisms from recipient countries that projects are too favorable to China and "explicit opposition" from the U.S., the report said.

However, all that could contribute to Beijing becoming more open to changes, as seen in China's "growing interest" in working with multilateral development banks to jointly finance projects, the report said.

But whatever modifications are made, the program is here to stay.

"Though it might change shape, the BRI is certainly not going away," Citi noted.