China’s Belt and Road Forum: Pressing ahead without the West

The lack of Western representation at the recent Belt and Road Forum has strengthened China’s resolve to push ahead with the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing is using the Forum as a vehicle to engage the developing world in a more concerted manner.
(Left to right) China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo and Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev head to a group photo session at the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 18 October 2023. (Suo Takekuma/AFP)
(Left to right) China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo and Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev head to a group photo session at the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 18 October 2023. (Suo Takekuma/AFP)

The 3rd Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in October 2023 saw a notable absence of high-level representation from European countries and a drop in the number of attending heads of state and government, compared to the previous editions. While this may be seen as indicative of declining interest in and support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is essential to recognise how Beijing is reshaping the BRI to better serve its interests and align with those of developing countries by implementing projects that better meet the needs of these countries.

Lower European representation

Only 24 heads of state and government attended the 3rd BRF, compared to 38 at the 2nd BRF (2019) and 30 at the 1st BRF (2017). Most notably, between the 2nd and 3rd BRF, the high-level participation from the European countries saw a big drop from nine to two, namely Hungary’s prime minister and Serbia’s president (Figure 1). Italy, the only G7 member onboard the BRI, was conspicuously absent and its impending withdrawal from the BRI is not good news for China.

Beijing announced a fresh sum of 700 billion RMB (US$95.7 billion) to finance BRI projects and an additional 80 billion RMB (US$11 billion) for the Silk Road Fund.

table 1
Note: Titles in bold indicate that the leader has attended the Forum at least once. (Source: ISEAS; Image: Jace Yip)

Yet the dearth of high-level participation from the West has not prevented Beijing from pushing ahead with the BRI. The BRI was intended to be a global initiative that would spread Beijing’s influence far and wide. Currently, the BRI, with its reduced geographical scope, has essentially become a vehicle for Beijing to strengthen its ties and become a champion for the developing world.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in his keynote address that Beijing looks forward to working together with all developing countries to achieve modernisation for the benefit of all. To further bind the interests of China and these countries, Beijing announced a fresh sum of 700 billion RMB (US$95.7 billion) to finance BRI projects and an additional 80 billion RMB (US$11 billion) for the Silk Road Fund.

A secretariat will be established to institutionalise the BRF, and cooperation in emerging areas like digital trade, science and technology, and AI will be pursued. China is committing more money and resources to build Beijing-centric platforms. This is akin to what it is doing with the BRICS grouping (originally Brazil, China, Russia, India and South Africa), which recently saw its membership expand from five to 11.

Over the past decade, Xi has met Putin a total of 42 times, which works out to an average of four times a year.

putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, on 18 October 2023. (Dmitry Azarov/Sputnik via Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s participation at the 3rd BRF attracted much attention. In essence, this was the “no limits" partnership between China and Russia at work: Xi’s invitation to Putin gives Putin an opportunity to break out of his diplomatic isolation due to the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant against him; Putin’s participation lends support to Xi’s signature BRI at a time when the West has largely shunned it.

Xi’s engagement with Putin is also part of China’s ongoing efforts to create a multipolar world with Russia as a key pole. This process started when Xi became president in 2013. Over the past decade, Xi has met Putin a total of 42 times, which works out to an average of four times a year. In contrast, Xi has only met US President Joe Biden once in 2022 and may meet a second time in November 2023 (the US has not been involved in the Forum since its inception).

... the lack of participation of the West makes it easier for Beijing to drive the agenda and devise programmes to cater to the needs of the developing world.

Voices from Southeast Asian countries

Only five Southeast Asian leaders attended the 3rd BRF compared to 10 at the 2nd BRF (Figure 2). A Chinese source claimed that Beijing deliberately focused on inviting leaders from those countries where signature projects were recently completed. This applied to Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam, which saw the successful launch of the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail, the China-Laos Railway and the Hanoi Metro Line respectively.

For China, it is also important to secure Indonesia’s participation as Xi had announced the launch of the Maritime Silk Road in Jakarta a decade ago. As for Cambodia, which Beijing considers “an iron-clad friend”, Prime Minister Hun Manet was invited, making this his second trip to China just after his last visit in September 2023. With regard to Thailand, this was Srettha Thaivisin’s first visit to a non-ASEAN country since becoming prime minister. Besides attending the BRF, Srettha paid an official visit to China.

table 2
Note: Titles in bold indicate that the leader has attended the Forum at least once. (Source: ISEAS; Image: Jace Yip)

Southeast Asian leaders at the Forum sought to shape the BRI process in constructive ways. In his address at the 3rd BRF, President Jokowi offered frank suggestions on how to make the BRI sustainable. He stressed the principle of equal partnership and mutual benefit as well as the importance of ensuring that host countries had ownership of BRI projects through measures like employing local labour and using local products. He further emphasised that BRI projects should strengthen the economic foundations of host countries without causing any fiscal burden. This was a veiled reference to the debt incurred by other countries involved in the BRI such as Argentina, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

anwar
Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (left) and his Chinese counterpart Li Qiang shake hands during a bilateral meeting held at the Liyuan Guest House after attending the 20th China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) 2023 and China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (CABIS), on 18 September 2023. (fotoBERNAMA)

The absence of other Southeast Asian leaders at the 3rd BRF does not mean that their countries do not support the BRI. Malaysia, for instance, remains committed to the East Coast Railway Line as well as the twin industrial parks in Kuantan and Guangxi. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim visited China twice in 2023: for the Boao Forum in March and the China-ASEAN Expo in September.

In a similar vein, Singapore’s signature project in the BRI is the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative which focuses on infocommunications technology, financial services, aviation, and transport and logistics. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, the island’s next prime minister, visited China in March and May 2023 respectively. Moreover, Singapore’s focus has been on practical cooperation and less on form. In any event, Singapore and Malaysia sent ministerial-level delegations to the 3rd BRF.

China is determined to press ahead with the BRI without the participation of the West. In fact, the lack of participation of the West makes it easier for Beijing to drive the agenda and devise programmes to cater to the needs of the developing world. For Southeast Asian countries, they prefer to be part of the BRI to shape the process in their own way and reap the benefits of cooperation while doing so.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

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