China’s leader Xi Jinping is expected to highlight the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a foreign policy success and an alternative development model to the West at a major summit in Beijing. The third Belt and Road Forum, set to begin on October 17, will be attended by representatives from around the world as China aims to cement the program as a key part of its foreign policy.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, has invested hundreds of billions in infrastructure projects in dozens of countries to boost trade and investment by improving China’s global transport links. 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, stating that the BRI “transcends the old mindset of geopolitical games and creates a new paradigm of international cooperation.”
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been a significant source of funding for developing countries, but it has also faced challenges such as corruption scandals, environmental degradation, and a rising debt crisis in the Global South. Since 2016, the BRI has seen a decline in financing and fewer projects being funded due to high-profile scandals over soaring debts tied to projects that left host governments unable to make repayments.
This has led to Beijing becoming more risk-averse. A study by Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center reported that the BRI had delivered more than $330 billion in loans to developing countries through 2021, lending more than the World Bank in some years. However, many recipients of Chinese loans are now struggling with their overall debt and many Chinese-funded power plants abroad are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite these obstacles, the BRI is not fading away, and President Xi Jinping 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 has been central to Chinese efforts to raise its international stature over the years, and experts say Beijing will be careful to manage the optics of the forum.
A large delegation of attending officials from around the world will be crucial at the BRI’s 10th anniversary. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has not released an official guest list yet, but representatives from over 130 countries and many international organizations will attend.
Ensuring strong representation across Europe may also be difficult, as fallout from China’s handling of the pandemic, support for Russia since its invasion of Ukraine, and scandals related to BRI projects have seen Beijing’s standing fall and ties fray.
Since 2019, China’s leadership has been criticized for its handling of certain issues, leading to a shift in how China can use and market the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed his attendance at China’s first trip since his invasion of Ukraine, expected to raise various issues with Xi Jinping, including the future of the Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline. Putin praised Xi and the BRI, pointing out that it does not have the same “colonialist flavor” as other projects.
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 building up China’s economic and political influence. The project shows China’s confidence in its own practices and is ready to offer them to the world.
A new Chinese government report on the BRI suggests that the program offers a new approach that doesn’t aim to dominate world economic development or control economic rules.
However, Chinese officials also responded to criticism by stating that they will adhere to the principle of sustainable debt and work with indebted countries towards a sustainable and risk-controllable investment and financing system.
Chinese banks have become more selective of projects and partners due to debt crises in multiple countries and a slowing economy. They are increasingly prioritizing investments in renewable energy and digital initiatives that are seen as more likely to bring a return on investment.
Chinese policy banks have shifted away from large-scale lending in the early years of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), leading to an increase in Chinese private company involvement. This shift is partly due to Chinese banks shifting their focus from developing countries to the domestic market, but also because private companies are more competitive globally than when the BRI was launched.