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Ten years after the launch of the iconic Belt and Road Initiative, China has rolled out new action plans and reaffirmed its commitment to the ambitious project

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Dec.1

A representative from Africa visits an exhibition introducing a technology that involves breeding fungi with herbaceous plants at the High-level Meeting on Juncao Technology: Concrete Contribution of the Belt and Road Initiative towards Synergies with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations Headquarters, New York, US, April 18, 2019 (Photo by VCG)

Wind power equipment bound for Egypt is loaded on a ship in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, October 11, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

An event promoting durian fruit from Malaysia is held in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, November 5, 2017 (Photo by VCG)

On October 17 and 18, China hosted the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, with representatives of 140 countries and 30 international organizations, including 23 heads of state and government, in attendance. The previous two editions were held in 2017 and 2019.  

The event marks the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a mammoth global infrastructure and development project initiated by China. The concept was first unveiled in a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013, when he proposed building an “economic belt along the Silk Road.” A month later, Xi proposed building the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road during a visit to Indonesia, which, combined with the economic belt proposal, eventually became the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  

In March 2015, China released a vision and action plan for the BRI. Under the Silk Road Economic Belt, which aims to enhance land connections and promote economic cooperation across Asia, Europe, Africa and beyond, six major corridors were laid out, including the New Eurasian Land Bridge Corridor, the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor, the China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the China-Myanmar-Bangladesh-India Corridor and the China-Indochina Peninsula Corridor.  

The Maritime Silk Road aims to construct new ports and promote connectivity between Chinese ports and those in regional countries along exiting sea lanes. It passes through the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait and extends to the Indian Ocean, ultimately reaching Africa and Europe.  

Winning Scoreboard 
According to a white paper on the BRI released by China’s State Council Information Office on October 10, by the end of June 2023, China had signed over 200 cooperation agreements to build the BRI with more than 150 countries and 30 international organizations.  

The report notes that total trade between China and BRI partner countries recorded an average annual growth of 6.4 percent. In 2022, the value of imports and exports between China and partner countries reached nearly US$2.9 trillion, accounting for 45.4 percent of China’s total foreign trade, representing an increase of 6.2 percentage points compared with 2013.  

The Belt and Road Initiative is seen to have helped China withstand the impact of the trade war the US launched against China under the Trump administration and the decoupling agenda under the Biden administration. After overtaking the US in 2019 and the European Union in 2020, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a priority region for the BRI, has become China’s No. 1 trade partner.  

“The BRI helped reshape and upgrade China’s export structure, greatly enhancing the resilience and growth potential of China’s export sector,” said Lu Zhengwei, chief Economist at China Industrial Bank. Lu highlighted trade between China and Arab countries, which almost doubled from US$222.4 billion in 2013 to US$431.4 billion in 2022.  

China also funded the establishment of channels and platforms for investment and financing projects under the BRI, including the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). According to the State Council’s white paper, by June 2023, the number of AIIB members had reached 106, and the bank had approved 227 projects with a total investment of US$43.6 billion. Agreements on 75 projects with committed investment of about US$22 billion were inked under the Silk Road Fund.  

According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, since its launch in 2013, the BRI has galvanized nearly $1 trillion of investment globally and created more than 3,000 projects and some 420,000 jobs for participating countries.  

Between 2013 and 2022, cumulative two-way investment between China and partner countries reached US$380 billion, including US$240 billion from China. By 2022, the actual turnover of Chinese construction contractors reached US$1.3 trillion, and Chinese enterprises had built more than 70 overseas industrial parks in cooperation with governments and enterprises in partner countries.  

According to Huang Renwei, Executive Vice Director of the Fudan Institute of Belt and Road & Global Governance, the BRI provides China and participating countries an opportunity to achieve “complementary” development in a virtuous circle.  

“The Belt and Road Initiative is neither fantasy nor empty talk,” Huang said, “While China’s development offers development opportunities for partner countries, the development of partner countries provides China with greater room for its own development.”  

Huang stressed that being a global manufacturing power, China has one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive industrial supply chains. Boasting the world’s most advanced high-speed rail network and accounting for nearly half of the world’s total shipping volume, China possesses a strong advantage in infrastructure development and in the logistics industry. In the meantime, there has been growing demand for infrastructure development worldwide.  

According to an estimate by US think tank the Atlantic Council in October 2022, the global infrastructure financing gap is estimated to reach around US$15 trillion by 2040.  

“China’s advantages in various industries and growing demand in the world is the fundamental reason why China has been able to push the BRI forward in the past decade,” Huang said.  

According to a 2019 World Bank report, if fully implemented, transport projects under the BRI could increase trade between 1.7 and 6.2 percent for the world, increasing global real income by 0.7 to 2.9 percent in 2030 compared to 2014. It will also help lift 7.6 million people from extreme poverty and 32 million from moderate poverty by 2030.  

Alternative Economics 
For many Chinese experts, the significance of the BRI goes far beyond trade and investment. “The most significant achievements of the BRI lie in its exploration of alternative development patterns and international economic cooperation models,” said Wu Huimin, managing director of the Global Institute (CGI) of China International Capital Corporation (CICC).  

Wu told NewsChina that with its infrastructure capability and proactive approaches, China has not only facilitated infrastructure development, but by opening its vast market to partner countries, it has made global trade conditions favorable for developing countries, and its growing innovation capabilities also help drive technological progress in the developing world.  

“With better trade ties and better connectivity, China’s trade with partner countries has evolved from importing raw materials to expanding into industry-specific value chains and finished product trade with these countries,” Wu said. “The expansion of potential markets in various countries has not only increased export demand but also improved resource allocation efficiency through competition.”  

Another key highlight of the BRI is that it brings together a wide range of bilateral and multilateral cooperation platforms and mechanisms, Wu added. Under the BRI framework, China and partner countries have launched more than 20 multilateral dialogue and cooperation mechanisms in a wide range of fields.  

Wu’s view was echoed by Wang Wen, a professor and executive dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at the Renmin University of China in Beijing. In an October 3 opinion piece published in Pearls and Irritations, an Australia-based public policy journal, Wang said developing countries had regarded the so-called “Washington Consensus,” which advocates privatization and ffnancial liberalization, as the only development path, but the BRI has offered them an alternative.  

“The achievements of 10 years of the BRI show that the Chinese economic experience, which champions ‘infrastructure first’ is more suited to up-and-coming countries,” Wang said. Based on the logic of what Wang dubbed “BRI Economics,” China provides loans to partner countries to build infrastructure such as railways, highways and ports. Although some projects may not be profitable in the short term, the government can still repay debts under the sovereign guarantee as these projects reduce economic transaction costs, improve economic activities’ efficiency, and drive up the value of land and real estate.  

Addressing the criticism of alleged “debt traps” in Western media, Mao Ning, spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a regular press conference on March 28 that despite China’s increasing level of lending to developing countries, multilateral financial institutions and commercial creditors still account for more than 80 percent of the sovereign debt of developing countries according to World Bank statistics. To address the debt problems of relevant countries, Mao said: “It is imperative that these institutions participate in debt treatment guided by the principle of joint actions and fair burden-sharing.”  

Mao stressed that in Africa alone, China helped build and upgrade more than 10,000 kilometers of railways, nearly 100,000 kilometers of roads, nearly 1,000 bridges and nearly 100 ports, which has contributed to these countries’ economies and peoples’ livelihoods and delivered tangible benefits to local communities.  

“To date, none of the partner countries have accepted the claim that the BRI has created ‘debt traps,’” Mao said. “On the debt issue, developing countries know best from their own experience who is a sincere and reliable friend and who is a rumor-monger with ulterior motives.”  

Among the most frequently cited cases involves China’s investment in infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, including Hambantota Port. According to the narrative in Western media, the Sri Lankan government had to enter into a 99-year lease contract to a Chinese company to repay the country’s colossal borrowings from Chinese banks for the port construction.  

Yet several reports, including one published by The Atlantic in February 2021 titled “The Chinese ‘Debt Trap’ Is a Myth,” found that when the port was leased to China in 2017, loans from Chinese banks accounted for less than 5 percent of the country’s total debt service that year. Moreover, the loans involving the port were not in default then, and the proceeds from the lease were not to repay loans owed to China but to bolster Sri Lanka’s own foreign reserves.  

In a July interview with CNA, an English-language news network in Singapore, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry dismissed the debt trap narrative, and stressed that China’s investment is “very, very important” for his country’s growth. According to China’s recent BRI white paper, the annual throughput of bulk cargo at Hambantota Port has reached 1.21 million tons.  

Challenges and Actions 
As the world faces a new era of great power competition when the US has identified China as its primary competitor and rallied its Western allies to launch a decoupling agenda against China, there is no doubt that China’s BRI will face greater challenges in the future.  

“Compared to 10 years ago, the global environment has undergone profound changes,” Wu Huimin told NewsChina. “Not only are there economic downturns throughout the world in the post-pandemic era, new dynamics, such as growing geopolitical tension, industrial supply chain adjustment and green transformation will have far-reaching effects on both economic fundamentals and global governance mechanisms.”  

During his speech at the third Belt and Road Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that despite “headwinds and tailwinds,” China and partner countries should persist in reaching their goals. Xi unveiled an eight-point action plan for the BRI’s further development.  

Xi said China will make joint efforts to build a new logistics corridor across the Eurasian continent linked by direct railway and road transportation. Linking China and Europe has been a major priority of the BRI. In March 2011, China launched the China Europe Railway Express, a cargo train service that connects China and Europe through various routes across 11 Asian countries. By the end of August 2023, the routes had recorded 77,000 trips, transporting more than 7.3 million 20- foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo worth over US$340 billion to 217 cities in 25 European countries.  

Other action plans include the establishment of a “Silk Road ecommerce zone” with more free-trade and investment agreements, a 350 billion yuan (US$47.9b) financing pledge to Chinese development banks for BRI projects, and an 80 billion yuan (US$10.9b) pledge to the Silk Road Fund.  

Xi said that China will promote green development and deepen scientific and technological cooperation with partner countries. Other areas of action include promoting cultural and people-to-people exchanges, including a tourism alliance, improving the integrity of the BRI cooperation, and establishing a secretariat for the Belt and Road Forum.  

According to Huang Renwei, as the deglobalization and decoupling trend pushed by the West intensifies, the BRI is currently the world’s most powerful and influential platform for economic globalization. Huang said as “Globalization 1.0” led by the US and predominantly Western countries has come to an end, the BRI represents “Globalization 2.0.”  

Huang argued that compared to Globalization 1.0, which was primarily driven by hot money, often leading to global financial crises and economic bubbles and creating wealth inequality within individual countries, Globalization 2.0 aims to uplift developing nations from poverty and increase the connectivity of the global market.  

According to Zhang Weiwei, dean of the China Research Institute of Fudan University, the BRI has elevated the status of the Global South in the world, and it still has great potential for cooperation. “The Global South has everything within its boundaries – natural resources, financial capital, growing markets and economic theories,” Zhang said in an interview with domestic media outlet Guancha.cn.  

“Different from the West’s principle of ‘Divide and Rule,’ China’s BRI follows its traditional wisdom of ‘Unite and Prosper,’ which represents a broader path [to development],” Zhang said.