Despite criticism that it has saddled some countries with unsustainable levels of debt since being launched 10 years ago, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to tout the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a foreign policy success while showcasing it as an alternative development model to the West at a major summit in Beijing.
The third Belt and Road Forum will begin on October 17 and is set to be attended by representatives from around the world as China looks to cement the program championed by Xi as a key part of the country's foreign policy.
"This is the 10-year anniversary for the first big foreign policy idea that Xi pushed out," Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told RFE/RL. "Everyone always focuses on individual projects, but [BRI] is ultimately a Chinese vision for how to engage with the world and Beijing is looking to celebrate that idea."
Formally launched in 2013 following speeches by Xi in Kazakhstan and Indonesia shortly after he became China's leader, the BRI has financed the construction of ports, power plants, railroads, highways, and other infrastructure projects and invested hundreds of billions of dollars in dozens of countries to boost trade and investment by improving China's transport links with the rest of the world.
Ahead of the upcoming Belt and Road Forum -- the first since 2019 -- the Chinese government released a report praising the program's accomplishments as a sustainable development model and framing it in opposition to the West, with Li Kexin, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's director for international economics affairs, telling reporters on October 10 that the BRI "transcends the old mindset of geopolitical games and creates a new paradigm of international cooperation."
Many experts say the BRI has directed much-needed funding to poorer countries, but that this has also come with a cost. Over the past decade it has grappled with scandals over corruption, environmental degradation, and contributing to a rising debt crisis in the Global South.
The BRI has seen the amount of financing decline since 2016 and fewer projects being funded following numerous high-profile scandals over soaring debts tied to projects that left host governments unable to make repayments, such as a nearly $1 billion highway in Montenegro and a port in Sri Lanka.
Analysts say these problems have led to Beijing becoming more risk-averse.
A study earlier in October by Boston University's Global Development Policy Center said the BRI had delivered more than $330 billion in loans to developing countries through 2021, lending more than the World Bank in some years. But the study also noted that many recipients of Chinese loans are now struggling with their overall debt and that many Chinese-funded power plants abroad are greatly adding to greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite these obstacles, the BRI is far from fading away, Pantucci said, adding that Xi is likely to use the Belt and Road Forum to respond to these criticisms while enshrining the program as a "foundation within Xi's foreign policy vision" for a "new global order where China is at the center."
"The BRI was always a concept with very fluid goals and very fluid goal posts," Pantucci said. "So, Beijing can move the goal posts and redefine what success looks like."
What To Look For At The Forum
The BRI has been central to Chinese efforts to raise its international stature over the years and experts say Beijing will be looking to carefully manage the optics of the Belt and Road Forum.
Central to that will be ensuring a large delegation of attending officials from around the world.
Beijing has not released an official guest list yet, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry said "representatives from more than 130 countries as well as many international organizations" will attend. However, it's unclear how senior these officials will be.
The first Belt and Road Forum in 2017 had 30 heads of state or government in attendance and the second gathering, in 2019, had 37. Beijing will be looking to grow that figure as it celebrates the BRI's 10th anniversary, but it may face some difficulties, especially as many top officials around the globe find themselves dealing with the crisis between Israel and Hamas.
Ensuring strong representation across Europe may also be difficult. While pro-Beijing governments in Hungary and Serbia have said they will send high-profile delegations led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic, it's unclear who else will attend, particularly among European Union members.
European countries formed some of the largest contingents of leaders at the previous meetings, but fallout from China's handling of the pandemic, its support for Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and numerous scandals related to BRI projects have seen Beijing's standing fall and ties fray. Italy, which was the only Group of Seven country to join the BRI, announced its intent earlier this year to withdraw from the program.
"A lot has happened since 2019 and many countries have been shocked by China's leadership and how it's navigated certain issues," Niva Yau, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, told RFE/RL. "This shift has now changed how China can use and market the [BRI]. It's no longer seen simply as this public good that China is providing to the world."
One world leader who confirmed his attendance long ago is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will be making his first trip to China since his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and is expected to raise a variety of issues with Xi, including the future of the much-sought-after Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline.
In an October 15 interview in Moscow with the state-owned China Media Corporation, Putin praised Xi and the BRI and took aim at the West's own history of development assistance across the world, saying the main difference for BRI is that "no one imposes anything on others" and that the program doesn't have the same "colonialist flavor" as other projects.
Adapting For The Future
The BRI's official goal since its launch a decade ago has been to boost trade and investment by improving China's transport links with the rest of the world and to build up China's economic and political influence in the process.
Yau says that while the BRI's main narrative has been about building and funding infrastructure, the project itself shows that "China feels so confident about its own practices that it is ready to offer them to the world."
"The BRI is much more than a global infrastructure and connectivity project. The BRI has instead communicated a clear Chinese conviction that China believes it's ready to articulate its own vision and values to the world," Yau said.
This attitude was on display ahead of the Belt and Road Forum, with a new Chinese government report on the BRI saying the program offered a new approach that wouldn't look to "dominate world economic development, control economic rules, and enjoy development fruits."
But Chinese officials also looked to respond to criticism against the BRI in the report, saying China would adhere to "the principle of sustainable debt" and work with indebted countries toward "a sustainable and risk-controllable investment and financing system."
Christoph Nedopil, director of the Asia Institute at Griffith University in Australia, told RFE/RL that in response to debt crises in multiple countries and also because China has less money to lend as its own economy slows down, Chinese banks have become more selective of projects and partners and are increasingly prioritizing investments in renewable energy and digital initiatives that are seen as more likely to bring a return on investment.
Nedopil adds that this shift away from large-scale lending by Chinese policy banks seen in the early years of the BRI has coincided with an uptick of involvement from Chinese private companies in recent years that looks set to continue into the future.
"This is partly because Chinese banks might be turning their attention away from developing countries and toward the domestic market," Nedopil said. "But lots of these private companies are now investing because they are far more competitive globally than they were when [the BRI] was originally launched."
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