The paper scrutinizes the purported synergies between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by examining the normative framework of the Initiative. The examination focuses on whether and how the conduct of relevant actors is regulated, particularly with regard to the environmental and social impacts of the economic activities – bulk of which consists of infrastructure projects – along the Belt and Road. One problematic feature of the existing legal and regulatory framework is its fragmentation – the variability of applicable sustainability standards – due to the predominantly bilateral character of the pseudo-formal agreements between China and the BRI participating States. Using a narrow, outdated view of sovereignty, these agreements rely on the environmental and social standards of the host/borrowing State. Such reliance poses challenges to achieving sustainable development along the Belt and Road, given the weak or sometimes inexistent safeguards for the protection of people and the environment within the domestic legal and regulatory systems of many host/borrowing States. Recent reports of polluted or dried-up rivers, inhuman working conditions, and displacement of indigenous peoples or local communities in some BRI States are symptomatic of this broader problem.
To remedy such problem, I argue for the multilateralization of the international lawmaking process along the Belt and Road. Given the transnational or cross-border character of the BRI and the interdependent, multi-dimensional (economic, environmental, social) impacts of many of its projects, its legal and regulatory framework needs to be informed by and aligned with the normative framework and standard-setting efforts concerning sustainable development at the multilateral level. The related international obligations of China and of the other BRI participating States on environmental and human rights protection and their commitments to sustainable development have to be taken into account when designing, approving, financing, and implementing infrastructure projects along the Belt and Road. I further posit that, consistent with the duty of international cooperation and assistance, China, as the main proponent of the Initiative and the party to the bilateral agreements with greater resources and capacity to implement reforms, should ensure that BRI infrastructure projects do not undermine the host/borrowing State’s ability to comply with its other obligations under international environmental law and international human rights law. Lastly, to bring the BRI in closer alignment with international sustainable development law, I suggest that the principles of integration and public participation, which also include transparency, have to be applied both at the project-level and during the negotiation phase for the memoranda of understanding and related financing agreements. The multi-dimensionality of sustainable development and the global holistic ambition of the Initiative call for a participatory and inclusive approach to decisionmaking and to the implementation of norms.