The 3rd BRI Forum firmly established China’s footprint in international politics for the next decade. The Forum was organised on October 17–18, 2023, in the bustling city of Beijing, reflecting Chinese prowess in the 21st century.
Under the slogan “Together for common development and prosperity”, the forum was organised to celebrate the 10th anniversary of BRI, a signature project and brainchild of Chinese president Xi Jinping. The forum has also had the privilege of being China’s first mega-event after the pandemic era. Heads of states and governments of 23 countries, representatives, and leaders of more than 140 countries became part of the Chinese extravaganza. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s participation remained the highlight of the forum meeting, who has been missing international events fearing his arrest by the International Criminal Court owing to the war crime in Ukraine.
The Chinese president inaugurated the Forum while expressing his satisfaction with the developments of the last decade and ushering in another golden decade for the modernisation of all the participant countries to build an open and inclusive world. Since its launch 10 years ago, BRI has evolved from idea into action, from a vision into reality. He further declared $107 billion to finance the BRI projects in different countries for the next ten years.
Xi’s Vision for BRI in Next Decade
President Xi put an end to the speculation regarding the fate of BRI with his pledge to make it stronger. He highlighted the course and strategy of BRI in the coming years. Wang Wen, executive dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at the Renmin University said that BRI will be systematic , long term, transnational, global project of the 21 century. BRI has also demonstrated China’s confidence and determination in the success of BRI. Thus, BRI strategy in the coming decade will revolve around eight cardinal steps.
First, China will support a multidimensional belt and road network. Europe – China Railway Express will be completed soon, boosting connectivity between China and Europe. China will also participate in the construction of trans-Caspian international transport corridors. It will also hold a Europe-China railway express international cooperation forum. It will also work with all parties to create a new Eurasian land logistic network supported by the railway and road networks. The project aims to connect 200 cities of 25 European countries. By the end of June 2023, cumulative volume of China – Europe Railway express had exceeded 74,000 trips, and over 50,000 types of good in 53 categories have been transported through this route with a total value of US $ 300 billion.
Second, China will extend its support for an open world economy. Total BRI imports and exports of goods and services are expected to exceed 32 billion US dollars and 5 billion US dollars in 2024–28. To further enhance multilateral trade, pilot zones for silk road e-commerce connectivity will be created, and to accomplish the task, China will come into agreement with many countries. He also talked about cross-border service trade and investment and the global digital trade expo to be held annually in order to boost trade and cooperation under the BRI umbrella. Economic cooperation in areas such as state-owned enterprises, the digital economy, intellectual property, and government procurement will be augmented.
Third, China has made a change to its BRI strategy by emphasising its thrust on practical cooperation among the member countries for the project. So, the new strategy will focus on ‘small but smart projects” along with signature projects. Of late, giant projects in various countries have received setbacks, so speculations were rife that Xi would end the big projects and replace them with small projects as part of the BRI. Xi also vowed more financing support for BRI projects on the basis of market and business cooperation.
Fourth, the next significant aspect is to promote green development, which is a novel initiative in the next phase of BRI. The BRI International Green Development Coalition has also been set up by the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment to pursue green development, which has unveiled the green innovation and finance partnership. The move would enable developing countries to find low-carbon, socially inclusive, and climate-resilient growth paths while at the same time profiting from Chinese and partner countries’ businesses.
Fifth, China has enacted the policy of supporting advanced scientific and technological innovation through the Belt and Road initiative; for that, a Science and Technological Innovation Cooperation Action Plan has been initiated. According to this, the number of joint laboratories in member countries will be increased to 100, which is 50 at present. By initiating scientific and technological innovation, China could promote its own development as the country is facing a growing list of export curbs from western countries, thereby impeding its growth and development prospects. By cooperating in the BRI Forum, China has the opportunity to attract global talent to work there, which could boost its own growth.
Sixth, China will continue with the policy of the people-to-people forum. It has decided to host the Liangzhu Forum to increase dialogue on civilisation with BRI partner countries. Numerous activities have been planned in order to attain cultural contacts, such as the establishment of the Silk Road International Theatre, an art festival, museums, an art gallery, and a library alliance. The Silk Route Tourism City Alliance would also be set up, which would be a significant attraction for the people of the partner countries.
Seventh, China will promote an integrity-based Belt and Road initiative in order to thwart opposition that has been put forward by many countries. To accomplish the task, Xi promised to set up a system to evaluate the integrity and compliance of companies participating in the BRI. Thus, China will cooperate with international organisation to conduct research and training on integrity for BRI initiatives.
Myriad feasibility studies have been done by international organisations which have found debt stress and sustainability problems with many BRI projects. Even if they are profitable projects, there might be a lot of conditions that need to be met before international organisation can invest in these infrastructure projects.
Eighth, China will continue to augment multilateral cooperation from the BRI platform in areas such as energy, taxation, finance, disaster reduction, green development, anti-corruption, media, think tanks, etc. Thus, China will strengthen institutional building by continuing to organising the Belt and Road Forum and establishing the BRI Forum Secretariat.
BRI has made brilliant progress since its inception, as more than 1 trillion dollar in investment delivered at least 3000 projects and signed over 200 BRI cooperation projects with more than 150 countries. Trade and investment expansion from 2013 to 2022 has remained significant. The cumulative value of import and export between China and BRI and partner countries reached US dollar 19.1 trillion with an average growth rate of 6.4 percent. The cumulative two-way investment between China and partner countries reached US$380 billion, including US$240 billion from China.
Speeding trains and trucks have become the symbol of the new era, just like camel caravans of old times. Hydroelectric stations and wind plants have helped to overcome the development bottlenecks in developing countries. Brand new airports, harbours, and industrial parks have brought some fresh momentum to the project.
According to the Chinese president XI, the BRI project has transcended differences between civilisations, cultures, social systems, and stages of development and opened a new path of development for member countries. Xi said that win-win cooperation is sure for the success of major initiatives launched by BRI that will benefit member countries. The BRI spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual benefit, and mutual learning is the source of success for the project and its member countries. He said, “We stand against ideological confrontation, geopolitical rivalry, and bloc politics. We also do not support unilateral sanctions, decoupling, economic coercion, or supply chain disruption.”
But this is only one side of the story. The BRI project is also mired with problems such as debt traps for partner countries, environmental destruction, corruption, financial mismanagement, etc. Countries like Montenegro, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Laos, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and many more are in debt traps and have to repay a huge amount to settle their debt. Montenegro’s debt has surpassed its GDP, and China is now eying its land as a consequence of non-repayment of debt. CPEC in Pakistan is witnessing local protests, as there were reports that Chinese officials overlooking the project have been kidnapped and killed. Sri Lanka has faced bankruptcy but due to invigorative succour from India and IMF it came out of grim scenario. Djibouti, where China has established its first overseas military base, is also not happy with the Chinese foothold on its soil.
The BRI project has also received setbacks owing to pandemic-time hardships when the world came to a standstill. Apprehensions were also there that China would take measures to downsize the project owing to the slowdown in the Chinese economy in recent times. But the 3rd BRI Forum rebutted the speculation and strengthened the case for the gigantic Chinese project to grow further. ‘Small yet smart’, green development, and the digital economy are the new initiatives that will be the highlights of future development. The world has to watch patiently the course of BRI in the coming decade, keeping in view the intricacies of Chinese domestic politics, BRI’s performance in partner countries, and the changing geo-strategic global scenario. For the time being, President Xi seems to be quite determined to carry forward his dream project and to make China a superpower by the middle of the 21st century to celebrate the 100th anniversary of communist China.