At BRI Forum, China Projects Image as Leader of the Global South

While Western leaders rushed to Israel as a bloody war between Israel and Hamas threatens to spiral out of control, guests at the 2023 Belt and Road Forum in Beijing were treated to a sumptuous 12-course meal and an opera performance. As the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) enters its second decade, Xi Jinping used the forum not only to trumpet the BRI’s ten-year anniversary, but also to portray China—in contrast to the West, in his opinion—as a fairer and more reliable actor on the world stage, worthy of leading the Global South.

David Pierson, Anatoly Kurmanaev, and Tiffany May from The New York Times described how Xi, alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, outlined his vision of the new world order:

The leaders of China and Russia hailed each other as “old” and “dear” friends. They took swipes at the United States and depicted themselves as building a “fairer, multipolar world.” And they marveled at their countries’ “deepening” trust.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, used a Beijing-led conference of leaders from mostly developing countries on Wednesday to showcase his ambitions to reshape the global order, as the world grapples with a war in Ukraine and a crisis in Gaza. He cast his country as an alternative to the leadership of the United States. And he gave a prominent role to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, underscoring how central their relationship is to Mr. Xi’s vision. [Source]

Xi’s “deep friendship” with Putin, who was a guest of honor at the forum, is a catalyst for Xi’s vision. Analyzing the forum for The Guardian, Amy Hawkins and Rhoda Kwan wrote: “As the focus of BRI spending shifts […,] Xi will make his appeal to BRI countries on ideological as well as political grounds. Putin is a vital ally in this rhetoric, as someone who echoes China’s criticisms of Washington’s dominance on the world stage.” Indeed, in his speech on Wednesday, Putin pledged support for the BRI by saying that it was “in tune with Russian ideas,” and lavishly praised the achievements of “our Chinese friends.”

As Brian Spegele and Wenxin Fan reported in The Wall Street Journal, Xi lauded the BRI as evidence of shifting thinking in geopolitical relations and promised that the world would reap the benefits of China’s success:

During a keynote speech Wednesday inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Xi positioned China as a leader of a new, more inclusive global order and promised that his country’s rise would benefit any that wanted to participate.

“We don’t do ideological confrontation, we don’t do geopolitical rivalry and we don’t do bloc politics,” he said, taking aim at unilateral sanctions, economic decoupling and other tools that Beijing accuses the U.S. of exploiting to contain its rivals. “What has been achieved in the past 10 years demonstrates that Belt and Road cooperation is on the right side of history.”

[…] “When China does well, the world will do even better,” Xi said. “Through Belt and Road cooperation, China is opening its doors even wider to the world.” [Source]

In his speech, Xi claimed that the BRI promotes “mutual benefit, common development, cooperation and win-win outcomes,” but he placed China front and center. As outlined in The Economist’s Chaguan column, Xi’s speech was in large part a call for China to be loved, and it presented a rose-tinted vision of China’s historical engagement with the world:

Addressing foreign dignitaries in the Great Hall of the People, Mr Xi made a case for Chinese exceptionalism. He presented his country as a peace-loving giant, guided by the centuries-old spirit of the Silk Road. In this telling, China’s Silk Road spirit is not a charitable impulse, but something more dependable: namely, a pragmatic pursuit of prosperity via mutually profitable trade. Though Mr Xi did not mention Zheng He by name, his government’s white paper on the BRI, published on the forum’s eve, cites the navigator as an inspiration, hailing his seven maritime expeditions that “boosted trade along the maritime silk routes”.

The admiral’s ghost hung over the speech as Mr Xi repeated one of his favourite claims about China’s past. “The pioneers of the ancient silk routes won their place in history not as conquerors with warships, guns, horses or swords,” he declared. “Rather, they are remembered as friendly emissaries leading camel caravans and sailing ships loaded with goods.” [Source]

In attendance at the forum were representatives from 140 countries and 30 international organizations, according to Chinese state media. Cobus van Staden from the China-Global South Project argued that “China’s network-building in the Global South probably isn’t slowing down,” given the breadth of countries represented at the forum and the increasing isolation of the U.S. in the United Nations—as evidenced by the recent U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian pauses in the Israel-Hamas crisis. While fewer world leaders attended this year’s forum than in years past, the leaders who did attend illustrated the divide between the Global North and Global South. “This time, you can really feel the absence of Europe,” said Moritz Rudolf, a German expert in Chinese governance at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Centre and a delegate at the forum. Shannon Tiezzi from The Diplomat tallied the shift in European attendance at each forum:

The most eye-catching [trend] is the lack of European leaders in attendance. The 2017 BRF [Belt and Road Forum] counted 10 heads of state or government from European countries, accounting for one-third of all the participants. The headcount of European top leaders grew to 11 in 2019. This year, just three European leaders made the trip: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Belarus, Czechia, Greece, Italy, and Switzerland all had sent top leaders to both the 2017 and 2019 summits, but skipped this year’s edition. [Source]

Western media’s recent predictions of a BRI slowdown may be premature. At the forum, Xi promised over $100 billion U.S. dollars in new financing for developing countries over the next five years, and greater access to the Chinese market for foreign companies. Jane Cai, Sylvie Zhuang, and Cyril Ip at the South China Morning Post described how Xi signaled that China would stay the course in its development pitch to the Global South:

The latest funding round includes 700 billion yuan of loans from two Chinese policy banks – Exim Bank and the China Development Bank – and an 80 billion yuan capital injection into the Silk Road Fund, a state-backed investment vehicle.

This headline figure of 780 billion yuan is the same sum pledged at the first belt and road forum in 2017, when Xi promised to pump 100 billion yuan into the Silk Road Fund, offered 380 billion yuan in loans from the same two policy banks, and counted on financial institutions to raise the remaining 300 billion yuan.

However, this time there was a greater emphasis on what Xi described as “small but beautiful” projects and green development, compared with the grand projects of previous years. [Source]

China has been using international development as a key method of differentiating itself from the West in its commitment to the Global South. The BRI thus remains “helpful for China’s ambition to form an alternative convening space for emerging economies,” noted Christoph Nedopil Wang, director of the Asia Institute at Griffith University in Australia. At a press conference on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that the BRI should not be politicized, but followed up with a comment that could be seen as goading the West: “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.” John Ruwitch from NPR reported on the logic and methods behind Chinese attempts to woo the Global South through the BRI:

Through the Belt and Road, China has projected itself as one of the few countries putting development back on the table in international forums, and it’s noticeable that Beijing’s modus vivendi has set itself apart from democracies such as the United States, says Hong Zhang, a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School, who studies China’s international development engagements.

“China wants to project an impression that it’s championing the agenda of economic development — namely through infrastructure-building and industrialization,” she says. “At the same time, Beijing has taken advantage of many critiques of the Western countries’ approach to foreign aid, which contains conditionalities related to good governance and human rights, and seeks to portray itself as a pragmatic partner.”

Marina Rudyak, an expert on Chinese aid and international development cooperation at Heidelberg University in Germany, agrees.

“[Beijing] uses that to argue that, well, we are not challenging the United States as the No. 1 where the United States is strong, mainly in terms of hard power. But we are projecting ourselves as an alternative power — and by the way, the better one. Namely, the one who takes care of developing countries and development,” she says. [Source]

The split-screen optics of the BRI in contrast with Israel’s war on Hamas may also enhance China’s image in the eyes of the Global South. Whereas Western leaders raced to support Israel and were slow to voice concerns about humanitarian consequences in Gaza, China issued a fairly pro-Palestinian response. Even now, many Western leaders shy away from criticizing Israeli human rights abuses in Palestinian areas and refrain from characterizing Israel’s attacks on civilian infrastructure and its withholding of water and electricity from Gaza as war crimes, despite having previously proclaimed that similar actions by Russia against Ukraine constituted war crimes. These apparent double standards may take a toll in the Global South, where support for Palestine largely exceeds that for Israel. As one senior G7 diplomat admitted this week: “We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South [….] All the work we have done with the Global South [over Ukraine] has been lost . . . Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.”


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