Even as the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation led by China concluded on 18 October, China’s President Xi Jinping was still occupied the next day meeting the various leaders who attended the forum.
This is the tenth year since the introduction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by Xi. Observers have predicted that China would go all out in organising this year’s forum, but the scale of participation and results of this year’s forum nevertheless exceeded expectations.
According to figures announced by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 18 October, registered participants at the forum numbered more than 10,000, coming from over 151 countries and 41 international organisations.
Compared with the second iteration of the forum in 2019, this year’s forum took place against the backdrop of rising China-US tensions, a global economy that has yet to recover from the pandemic, as well as the Russia-Ukraine war and Israel-Hamas conflict casting a shadow over world peace.
External observers, especially those from the West, initially doubted the forum’s ability to draw participation and its impact. But the large number of leaders from countries and international organisations who came to Beijing to attend the forum has caught many by surprise.
... the forum has become a large diplomatic stage for China to demonstrate its might and international influence.
Among the more than 20 heads of states and leaders of government, in attendance were Russia’s President Putin who has called Xi “an old friend”, Mongolia’s President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh, President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia, who China has called an “ironclad friend”, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez.
Also present were Chile’s President Gabriel Boric, Republic of the Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kenya’s President William Ruto, Laos’ President Thongloun Sisoulith, Sri Lanka’s Ranil Wickremesinghe, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Vietnam’s President Vo Van Thuong, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Manet, Egypt’s Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape and Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.
Agreements worth US$97.2 billion were also reached following the CEO conference held during the forum, likewise exceeding the US$64 billion figure from the previous forum.
Hence, the forum has become a large diplomatic stage for China to demonstrate its might and international influence. Xi has made frequent public appearances in the past few days, be it giving the keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the forum, or hosting banquets for the various world leaders, as well as holding dialogues with leaders from each country.
The results from this forum have also surpassed observers’ expectations. According to statistics released by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 18 October, during the course of the forum, all parties yielded a total of 458 deliverables, far exceeding the 283 from the previous forum in 2019. Agreements worth US$97.2 billion were also reached following the CEO conference held during the forum, likewise exceeding the US$64 billion figure from the previous forum.
Xi announced on 18 October that China would support the BRI through an eight-point action plan, including promoting both signature projects and “small yet smart” livelihood programmes, carrying out 1,000 small-scale livelihood assistance projects. The two policy banks, the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China, will each set up a 350 billion RMB financing window, with an additional 80 billion RMB to be injected into the Silk Road Fund, giving BRI projects market- and commercial-based financial support.
The outcomes of the forum also include cooperation agreements and institutional arrangements such as the Beijing Initiative for Deepening Cooperation on Connectivity; cooperation in green financing and investments; initiative for green development; initiative for international cooperation in digital economy; and High-Level Principles on Belt and Road Integrity Building. It also set specific targets such as providing 100,000 training opportunities for partner countries by 2030 and increasing the number of joint laboratories to 100.
Wang said that the series of tangible cooperation outcomes represent the participating parties’ support for the BRI. Belt and Road cooperation is not just about “talking the talk, but walking the walk”; that is, it is “action-oriented” and will continuously promote global economic growth and drive global development.
Wang [Yi] stressed that China is willing to look at China-US competition from a positive perspective — competition should not mean working against each other but mutually improving each other.
China-US competition to mutually improve each other
The US and other Western countries have always considered the BRI as China’s grand strategy to change the existing geopolitical and international order, and in recent years have also proposed initiatives such as the Blue Dot Network, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, and Build Back Better World.
At the G20 summit in September this year, the US, the European Union, India and others announced the establishment of a new India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. These actions are clearly intended to rival China’s BRI and prevent it from becoming a strategic tool for China to expand its international influence.
In response, Wang stressed that China is willing to look at China-US competition from a positive perspective — competition should not mean working against each other but mutually improving each other.
He said, “We might as well compete internationally to see who can build more roads, railways and bridges for developing countries, and who can construct more schools, hospitals and sports facilities for the people in low-income countries. China has the confidence and determination in this regard.”
With China’s existing infrastructure capabilities, it is indeed difficult for the US and other Western countries to surpass China in building roads and bridges and constructing large-scale public welfare facilities in low-income countries. Despite receiving much criticism over the past few years, the BRI has made significant progress overall, which is why numerous developing countries are willing to participate in it.
... the scale and outcomes of the third Belt and Road Forum has not only exceeded the outside world’s expectations but also demonstrated China’s international influence that is not to be underestimated.
Just as Xi was discussing development plans with various world leaders, US President Joe Biden was busy rushing to the Middle East to mediate the Israel-Hamas conflict and prevent it from spilling into the wider region.
But China-US competition is still ongoing. On 17 October, the US Department of Commerce further tightened chip export restrictions to China. The Five Eyes intelligence alliance comprising the US, the UK and others also issued a joint statement accusing China of using artificial intelligence for hacking and spying activities.
However, the scale and outcomes of the third Belt and Road Forum has not only exceeded the outside world’s expectations but also demonstrated China’s international influence that is not to be underestimated. This is perhaps what Wang calls China’s “confidence” and “determination” in competing with the US.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “高峰论坛超出预料”.
Related: Ten years of the BRI: Where does it go from here? | Russia’s reliance on China is growing, but will China benefit? | Ten years of the BRI: Raising China’s speaking rights amid geopolitical and debt risks