Reflections on a Decade of the Belt and Road Initiative

This week, China hosts its third Belt and Road Summit to mark ten years since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Representatives from over 140 countries are expected to meet in Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday, in what Chinese officials have called China’s “most important diplomatic event” of the year. Notable figures in attendance are Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the Taliban’s acting minister for commerce and industry Haji Nooruddin Azizi, and other heads of state from numerous countries in the Global South. On the eve of the forum, CDT has compiled several reports from analysts, journalists, and academics reflecting on the past decade of the BRI, its evolution, and its significance to the world.

Last week, China’s State Council released a white paper on the BRI, the first high-level document of its kind on the topic, which celebrated the BRI’s success and hinted at its future trajectory. Panda Paw Dragon Claw summarized the BRI white paper and its framing of the initiative:

The White Paper seeks to frame the BRI in rhetoric we have seen before. It is “proposed by China but belonging to the whole world”, which is also the title of the first section of the paper. While this framing is consistent, the timing and nature of the White Paper’s release – by China a few days before the 3rd BRI Forum – feels very much like a top-down prescription of the initiative. Perhaps the Forum’s outcomes will present a more multilateral picture.

[…] In short, while big ticket BRI infrastructure deals have been on the wane over the last few years, Beijing is by no means stepping back from the BRI. It has been viewed as a success in terms of infrastructure, connectivity, trade and more. Moreover, Beijing’s vision for the next ten years is further expansion on all these fronts. Will the outcomes of the 3rd Belt and Road Forum beginning today match the ambition of the White Paper? [Source]

In late September, German think tank MERICS published its quarterly China Global Competition Tracker describing how the BRI has shifted from massive-scale infrastructure undertakings to advanced digital projects:

In this edition, MERICS Analyst Francesca Ghiretti looks at the changing nature of the BRI and how it fits into the growing toolkit that Beijing is assembling for its strategies overseas. She finds that the BRI is shifting alongside China’s own shifting needs and capacities. The days of a torrent of mega project announcements under the BRI umbrella are long gone, but that doesn’t mean the initiative itself is fading away. Instead, it is becoming one of several tools in Xi’s foreign policy agenda, and increasingly, one more aligned with the higher value-added industries that China has solidified over the last decade. As Ghiretti argues, the Digital Silk Road will likely be the central pillar for the BRI moving forward, while it will also be tied in with fresher global initiatives coming out of Beijing. [Source]

China Dialogue hosted a roundtable in which six experts with different regional and thematic backgrounds shared their assessments of the BRI’s evolution over the past decade. Here is an excerpt from Margaret Myers, Director of the Asia & Latin America Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, on Chinese engagement in Latin America:

[China’s trade relationship with Latin America] has underpinned the China-Latin America dynamic for more than two decades, driven by China’s pursuit of food, energy, and broader supply chain security. But investment and finance have slowed as Chinese companies focus on smaller projects in sectors supportive of China’s own economic growth objectives. Aside from a pervasive focus on acquiring energy generation and transmission assets, Chinese interest in BRI-esque megaprojects has in many cases been replaced by a focus on technological and innovation-related ventures and the minerals and metals that support them.  

Lessons from over two decades of Chinese engagement with the region have also shaped BRI prospects. Once a primary recipient of Chinese attention in Latin America, Venezuela no longer features among the top destinations for Chinese banks and companies. Chinese companies are seemingly dissuaded by high political risk in some parts of the region. As they manage mounting sovereign debt, some Latin American governments are also seemingly wary of pursuing more China-backed projects. In Chile, certain politicians have also expressed concern about the degree of that country’s economic dependence on China, even though investment there is still more limited than in many other parts of the region. [Source]

At Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center (GDPC), Kevin P. Gallagher, William Kring, Rebecca Ray, Oyintarelado Moses, Cecilia Springer, Lin Zhu, and Yan Wang recently published a flagship report evaluating the benefits and risks for BRI countries and China. It found that positive elements have included new, additional resources for the Global South, significant economic growth, and the co-creation of a new model of South-South cooperation and developing country agency in development; however, some risks include accentuated debt distress, increased carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution, and risks to biodiversity and indigenous lands. For the China-Global South Project, the GDPC’s director Kevin P. Gallagher provided a snapshot of where the BRI stands at the ten-year mark and emphasized the two-way nature of China’s relationship with its BRI partner countries:

The benefits of the BRI have helped developing countries, China, and the global economy at large, but the risks have taken a bite out of those benefits. China has already taken a step forward in attempts to maximize the benefits with the ‘small is beautiful’ approach, the end of new overseas coal financing, a new focus on low-carbon growth, and a willingness to suspend debt payments for some of the most distressed developing countries. These are steps in the right direction that need more ambition from Beijing, but the BRI has always been a two-way street. Developing countries need to take advantage of their growing agency to capitalize on Chinese finance opportunities and steer them toward resilient, socially inclusive, and low-carbon growth strategies. [Source]

The biannual edition of Global China Pulse featured a forum on the BRI to mark its tenth anniversary. In her introduction, Jessica DiCarlo explained that the forum speaks across disciplinary and methodological boundaries to reflect on the various debates, scholarship, and perspectives on the BRI, and to explore its evolution, contradictions, and future policy issues:

In the first essay, Igor Rogelja reflects on tensions between the hypervisibility and invisibility of BRI infrastructure. Next, Han Cheng considers the BRI as discourse, project, and experience, to think through the initiative’s imagined, material, and lived implications across multiple terrains and scales. Jordan Lynton Cox suggests a more historically grounded analysis to improve understanding of Global China. Hong Zhang turns to the domestic dimensions of the BRI, shedding light on the local interests it has nurtured that are dependent on continued international exchanges and their implications for China’s domestic political economy. Cecilia Springer and Keren Zhu explore the changes in BRI financing trends, the evolution of BRI environmental regulations, and efforts towards a greener BRI. Elia Apostolopoulou discusses BRI-driven urban formations as part of a global urbanisation project that prioritises the creation of new trade corridors and transnational connections. In the final essay, Jessica DiCarlo reviews grounded BRI research to advocate a more multifaceted conceptualisation of Global China in the wake of Ching Kwan Lee’s pioneering work (see, for instance, Lee 2017).

Collectively, the forum reflects on how we study large, dynamic local–global processes and what we have learned through research on this subject. We question the ways research might move beyond the BRI to underscore the processes, dynamics, and materialities that make up the initiative’s numerous manifestations. Indeed, in many ways, the overwhelming focus on the BRI often obscures more than it reveals. As this forum highlights, the BRI’s projects and efforts will continue to influence and be influenced by dynamics such as domestic trends in China, host-country politics, sociopolitical processes, and the global geopolitical landscape. Each crucially shapes the trajectory of the BRI. As we move into the second decade of the BRI, analysis must incorporate these multiple scales and orientations. [Source]

At The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi mapped the growth of the BRI over its first ten years, categorizing its 154 members by region, income status, and how soon they joined the initiative. She concluded by evaluating the significance of whether or not a country signs a BRI cooperation document

In one sense, of course it matters – such agreements are a handy barometer of countries that have a positive relationship with Beijing (or, at least, did at one point). In addition to foreign governments hoping for increased investment and trade flows from China, the symbolism of growing the BRI to the maximum extent clearly matters for Beijing. That’s added motivation for the signatories: If Beijing is pushing a partner government to sign on, they are likely to do so absent a pressing national interest pulling in the opposite direction (for example, India’s concerns about the BRI passing through disputed areas).

But BRI agreements are non-binding and of little value if not accompanied by actual project contracts. As discovered by Italy, which is reconsidering its membership in the BRI club, a cooperation document doesn’t always mean much in practice. Similarly, the CEE countries, some of the earliest members of the Belt and Road Initiative, have largely become disillusioned with China in general and the BRI in particular.

[…] In that sense, the growth of the BRI is perhaps best understood as symbolic: a picture of countries whose aspirations for their relationships with China outweigh their concerns. With that in mind, the BRI’s reach today is important, if only as a good reminder that the vast majority of the world is not interested in “decoupling” from China. [Source]


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