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Thoughts on 10 Years of the Belt and Road Initiative

Thoughts on 10 Years of the Belt and Road Initiative

China is hosting its third Belt and Road Summit this week to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Representatives from more than 140 countries will gather in Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Chinese officials describing it as the country’s most significant diplomatic event of the year. Notable attendees include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Haji Nooruddin Azizi, the Taliban’s acting minister for commerce and industry, and other heads of state from various countries in the Global South. Leading up to the summit, CDT has compiled a collection of reports from analysts, journalists, and academics reflecting on the BRI’s first decade, its development, and its global impact.

The previous week, the State Council of China published a white paper discussing the BRI. This was the first official document of its kind and praised the BRI’s accomplishments while giving insight into its future direction. Panda Paw Dragon Claw provided a summary of the BRI white paper and its perspective on the initiative.

The White Paper aims to present the BRI in familiar language. It states that the initiative is “proposed by China but for the benefit of the entire world”, which is also the heading of the initial section of the paper. Although this framing is in line with previous statements, the timing and manner of the White Paper’s publication – just a few days before the 3rd BRI Forum – seems to be a directive from China, rather than a collaborative effort. It is possible that the outcomes of the Forum will portray a more inclusive perspective.

In summary, although there have been fewer large-scale BRI infrastructure agreements in recent years, China is still committed to the BRI. The initiative has been deemed successful in terms of building infrastructure, promoting connectivity and trade. Additionally, China’s plans for the next decade involve further growth in these areas. Will the results of the 3rd Belt and Road Forum, which starts today, align with the goals outlined in the White Paper? [Source]

The quarterly China Global Competition Tracker by German think tank MERICS was recently released in late September. It reports on the shifting focus of the Belt and Road Initiative from large-scale infrastructure projects to more advanced digital initiatives.

In this edition, MERICS Analyst Francesca Ghiretti examines the evolving nature of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its role in China’s expanding overseas strategies. Ghiretti finds that the BRI is adapting to China’s changing priorities and capabilities. While the days of numerous large-scale project announcements under the BRI banner may be over, the initiative itself remains relevant. It is now one of many tools in President Xi’s foreign policy agenda, with a focus on industries that have become more valuable for China in recent years. As Ghiretti suggests, the Digital Silk Road is likely to be the primary focus of the BRI going forward, and it will also be linked to newer global initiatives from Beijing. [Source]

China Dialogue organized a discussion where six specialists with varying knowledge of different regions and topics discussed their evaluations of the BRI’s development in the last ten years. Below is a quote from Margaret Myers, who heads the Asia & Latin America Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, regarding China’s involvement in Latin America.

China’s economic ties with Latin America have been a key factor in shaping the relationship between the two regions for over 20 years. China’s main motivations for this partnership have been to secure food and energy resources, as well as to strengthen its supply chain. However, recent years have seen a decrease in Chinese investments and financing in Latin America, as Chinese companies shift their focus to smaller projects that align with their own economic growth objectives. While energy generation and transmission have remained a top priority for Chinese investments, there has been a shift towards technological and innovation-driven ventures, as well as minerals and metals that support these industries.

The lessons learned from more than 20 years of Chinese involvement in the region have influenced the potential success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While Venezuela used to be a key focus for Chinese banks and companies in Latin America, it is no longer a top destination. This is likely due to the high political risk present in some areas of the region. Additionally, some Latin American governments are hesitant to pursue further projects with China as they try to manage their growing national debts. In Chile, some politicians have expressed worries about the country’s heavy reliance on China for its economy, although Chinese investment there is still relatively limited compared to other parts of the region. [Source]

The Global Development Policy Center (GDPC) at Boston University recently released a report, authored by Kevin P. Gallagher, William Kring, Rebecca Ray, Oyintarelado Moses, Cecilia Springer, Lin Zhu, and Yan Wang, which evaluates the advantages and drawbacks of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for both participating countries and China. The report highlights positive outcomes such as increased resources for developing countries, significant economic growth, and the development of a new model of cooperation between developing countries. However, it also identifies risks such as heightened debt levels, higher carbon emissions and air pollution, and potential threats to biodiversity and indigenous lands. During a presentation for the China-Global South Project, GDPC director Kevin P. Gallagher provided an overview of BRI’s progress after ten years and emphasized the mutual nature of China’s relationship with its BRI partners.

The BRI has provided advantages for developing nations, China, and the global economy as a whole. However, there have also been risks that have offset these benefits. China has taken steps to optimize the benefits through the “small is beautiful” approach, discontinuing new coal financing overseas, focusing on low-carbon growth, and being open to suspending debt payments for struggling developing countries. These are positive steps, but the BRI is a mutual partnership. Developing countries must use their increasing influence to make the most of Chinese financial opportunities and guide them towards sustainable, socially inclusive, and environmentally friendly growth strategies.

The latest issue of Global China Pulse included a discussion on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in honor of its ten-year anniversary. In her opening remarks, Jessica DiCarlo stated that the forum aims to bridge different fields and approaches in order to reflect on the numerous discussions, research, and viewpoints surrounding the BRI. The forum also seeks to examine its development, inconsistencies, and potential policy concerns in the future.

The first essay by Igor Rogelja examines the tensions between the high visibility and invisibility of BRI infrastructure. Han Cheng then delves into the BRI as a discourse, project, and experience, to analyze its imagined, material, and lived implications on various terrains and scales. Jordan Lynton Cox suggests a historically grounded approach to better understand Global China. Hong Zhang explores the domestic aspects of the BRI, revealing the local interests that rely on ongoing international exchanges and their impact on China’s domestic political economy. Cecilia Springer and Keren Zhu investigate the changes in BRI financing trends, the development of BRI environmental regulations, and efforts towards a more environmentally friendly BRI. Elia Apostolopoulou discusses the BRI-driven urban developments as part of a larger global urbanization project that prioritizes the creation of new trade corridors and international connections. In the final essay, Jessica DiCarlo reviews researched-based studies on the BRI to advocate for a more comprehensive understanding of Global China, building upon the pioneering work of Ching Kwan Lee (see Lee 2017).

Together, the discussion group considers how we research and understand large, ever-changing processes that occur locally and globally. We examine ways in which further research can go beyond the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to uncover the various dynamics, movements, and physical components that make up the initiative in its many forms. In reality, the excessive focus on the BRI can often obscure more than it reveals. As this discussion highlights, the BRI’s projects and efforts will continue to be impacted by factors such as internal developments in China, political situations in host countries, social and political processes, and the global geopolitical landscape. These factors are crucial in shaping the direction of the BRI. As we enter the second decade of the BRI, analysis must consider these different scales and perspectives. [Source]

The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi analyzed the development of the BRI during its initial decade, organizing its 154 participants by geographical location, economic status, and time of joining. She concluded by assessing the importance of a country signing a BRI cooperation agreement.

In a way, it is important to note that these agreements serve as a useful indicator of which countries have a favorable relationship with Beijing (or at least did at one point). Aside from foreign governments seeking opportunities for investment and trade with China, there is also significant symbolism in expanding the Belt and Road Initiative to its fullest extent for Beijing. This serves as added incentive for countries to become signatories, as they are more likely to do so unless there is a pressing national interest that pulls them in a different direction (such as India’s concerns about the BRI passing through disputed territories).

However, BRI agreements hold little significance if not accompanied by tangible project contracts, as seen with Italy’s reconsideration of its involvement in the BRI. Merely signing a cooperation document does not necessarily translate to tangible results. Similarly, the CEE countries, who were among the first members of the BRI, have become disenchanted with China and the BRI overall.

The expansion of the BRI can be seen as a representation of countries prioritizing their connections with China over any worries they may have. This highlights the significance of the BRI’s current reach and serves as a reminder that most countries are not looking to sever ties with China. [Source]