“Amidst a violent conflict between Israel and Hamas, Western leaders have hurried to Israel while guests at the 2023 Belt and Road Forum in Beijing enjoyed a lavish 12-course meal and an opera show. The forum, marking the ten-year anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was used by Xi Jinping to showcase China as a fair and dependable global leader, in contrast to the Western powers.”
David Pierson, Anatoly Kurmanaev, and Tiffany May of The New York Times reported on Xi’s and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presentation of their perspective on the future global system.
The heads of China and Russia praised one another as long-standing and close companions. They made jabs at the United States and presented themselves as creators of a more equitable, diverse global community. They also expressed admiration for the strengthening trust between their nations.
At a conference led by China in Beijing, Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, highlighted his plans to reform the international system. This comes at a time when the world is dealing with conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. He positioned China as a substitute to the leadership of the US and emphasized the critical role of his relationship with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in his vision. [Source]
Xi and Putin have a strong bond, with Putin being a special guest at the forum. This relationship is a driving force behind Xi’s vision. Hawkins and Kwan from The Guardian noted that as BRI spending shifts, Xi will use both ideological and political arguments to appeal to BRI countries. Putin plays a crucial role in this narrative, as he shares China’s criticisms of US dominance in global affairs. During his speech on Wednesday, Putin pledged his support for the BRI, stating that it aligns with Russian beliefs, and he praised the accomplishments of the Chinese.
According to an article by Brian Spegele and Wenxin Fan in The Wall Street Journal, Xi praised the BRI as a signal of changing perspectives in global relations and assured that the international community would benefit from China’s achievements.
In a speech on Wednesday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi declared China as a leader in creating a more inclusive global order. He also pledged that the country’s growth would bring benefits to all those who wished to be involved.
The speaker stated that they do not engage in ideological conflicts, geopolitical competition, or forming political alliances. They also criticized the use of one-sided sanctions, economic separation, and other tactics that China believes the U.S. uses to suppress its opponents. They believe that the success of the Belt and Road initiative in the last decade shows that it is aligned with the progress of history.
Xi stated that when China succeeds, the rest of the world will also benefit. He also mentioned that through collaboration on the Belt and Road initiative, China is increasing its global accessibility.
During his address, Xi asserted that the Belt and Road Initiative emphasizes the principles of mutual gain, shared progress, collaboration, and positive outcomes, but he emphasized China’s role. As discussed in The Economist’s Chaguan column, Xi’s speech was largely a plea for China to be admired, and it depicted a rosy perspective of China’s past involvement with the global community.
Speaking to foreign leaders at the Great Hall of the People, Mr. Xi argued for the uniqueness of China. He portrayed his nation as a peaceful powerhouse, guided by the enduring spirit of the Silk Road. In this narrative, China’s Silk Road spirit is not driven by altruism, but rather a practical pursuit of prosperity through mutually beneficial trade. While Mr. Xi did not explicitly reference Zheng He, his government’s white paper on the Belt and Road Initiative, released on the eve of the forum, cites the legendary navigator as an inspiration, praising his seven voyages that “fostered trade along the maritime silk routes”.
Xi, in his speech, evoked the presence of the admiral’s ghost and reiterated his favorite assertion about China’s history. He stated that the early travelers along the silk routes did not earn their place in history through violence and warfare, but rather through peaceful trade and diplomacy.
According to Chinese state media, the forum was attended by representatives from 140 countries and 30 international organizations. Cobus van Staden, from the China-Global South Project, argued that China’s efforts to build networks in the Global South are still ongoing, as evidenced by the wide range of countries represented at the forum and the increasing isolation of the U.S. in the United Nations. This was highlighted by the recent U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian pauses in the Israel-Hamas crisis. While fewer world leaders were in attendance compared to previous years, those who did come demonstrated the divide between the Global North and Global South. Moritz Rudolf, a German expert in Chinese governance at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Centre and a delegate at the forum, noted the absence of Europe this time around. Shannon Tiezzi from The Diplomat documented the decline in European attendance at each forum.
The most notable [trend] is the lack of presence of European leaders at the 2017, 2019, and current BRF (Belt and Road Forum). In 2017, only 10 heads of state or government from European countries attended, making up one-third of all participants. This number increased to 11 in 2019, but has since decreased to only three European leaders in attendance this year. In the past, countries such as Belarus, Czechia, Greece, Italy, and Switzerland had sent top leaders to both the 2017 and 2019 summits, but chose not to attend this year’s summit. [Source]
The recent forecasts from Western media about a potential slowdown in the BRI may be too early. During the forum, Xi pledged to provide over $100 billion USD in new funding for developing nations in the next five years, as well as increased opportunities for foreign companies to enter the Chinese market. According to Jane Cai, Sylvie Zhuang, and Cyril Ip of the South China Morning Post, Xi’s statements indicate that China remains committed to its development strategy for the Global South.
The most recent round of funding involves 700 billion yuan in loans from two Chinese policy banks, the Exim Bank and the China Development Bank. Additionally, there will be an 80 billion yuan investment into the Silk Road Fund, which is a government-supported investment entity.
The amount of 780 billion yuan has been pledged, which is equal to the amount promised at the first belt and road forum in 2017. During this forum, Xi had committed to investing 100 billion yuan into the Silk Road Fund, providing 380 billion yuan in loans from two policy banks, and relying on financial institutions to raise the remaining 300 billion yuan.
This time around, there was a stronger focus on what Xi referred to as “small yet beautiful” initiatives and environmentally-friendly development, in contrast to the large-scale projects of previous years. [Source]
China has utilized international development as a primary strategy to set itself apart from the Western world in its dedication to supporting the Global South. According to Christoph Nedopil Wang, director of the Asia Institute at Griffith University in Australia, the BRI serves as a valuable tool for China’s goal of creating an alternative platform for emerging economies. During a press conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that the BRI should not be politicized, but also challenged the West by suggesting a competition to see who can provide more infrastructure and public services for developing nations. NPR’s John Ruwitch delved into the rationale and tactics behind China’s efforts to attract the Global South through the BRI.
According to Hong Zhang, a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School who focuses on China’s global development efforts, the Belt and Road initiative has positioned China as one of the leading nations advocating for development in international discussions. It is evident that Beijing’s approach differs from that of democratic countries like the United States.
According to the speaker, China aims to present itself as a leader in promoting economic progress by focusing on constructing infrastructure and developing industries. However, China has also capitalized on criticisms of the Western countries’ foreign aid policies, which often come with requirements for good governance and human rights, in order to position itself as a practical and cooperative partner.
According to Marina Rudyak, a specialist in Chinese aid and global development collaboration at Heidelberg University in Germany, her opinion aligns with this.
According to a source, Beijing argues that they are not trying to surpass the United States as the top power, especially in terms of military strength. Instead, they are positioning themselves as a viable alternative and a superior one at that. This is demonstrated through their focus on developing countries and promoting development.
The use of split-screen technology in the Belt and Road Initiative, as opposed to Israel’s conflict with Hamas, could improve China’s reputation among countries in the Global South. While Western leaders quickly sided with Israel and were hesitant to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, China took a clear pro-Palestinian stance. Despite previously condemning similar actions by Russia against Ukraine as war crimes, many Western leaders now shy away from criticizing Israel’s human rights violations in Palestinian territories, such as attacks on civilian infrastructure and withholding of essential resources. These perceived double standards may have a negative impact in the Global South, where support for Palestine is typically stronger than support for Israel. As one senior diplomat from a G7 country acknowledged, their efforts to gain support from the Global South have been unsuccessful due to their handling of the conflict in Ukraine. They fear that they may have permanently damaged their credibility and influence in the region.