BRI 10 years after: Low mood to celebrate

China, Geopolitics and the Global South

Uwe Hoering, July 31, 2023

The Chinese government will probably not be able to avoid paying tribute to the 10th anniversary of the kick-off of the Belt&Road Initiative, then called OBOR, by State and Party leader Xi Jinping in Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013. While it remained unclear for some time how this tribute would work out, there are now indications that there may be a 3rd Belt&Road Forum for International Cooperation this autumn. However, if this should materialize despite the narrow time frame by now, it will probably be difficult to top the influx of delegations from all over the world experienced at the first two meetings in 2017 and 2019.

Because the times they have changed for Belt&Road. First the funding and the number of projects were cut back. Than came Corona and economic problems worldwide, as well as at home in China, and in February 2022 the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Manifold problems with Belt&Road projects hamper the enthusiasm. Governments are growing more confident in negotiations with Beijing for fear of excessive debt and Chinese influence; moreover, with competing offers from the West, such as Global Gateway and B3W by the G7, there are other alternatives. Furthermore, the conflict with the U.S. is increasingly shaping China’s foreign economic policies and geopolitics.

Lately, the former showcase project has been talked down as “small and beautiful”, for example by Xi Jinping himself in November 2021. Since then Belt&Road has often been considered as comatose, especially in Western media. But this could be a misconception. BRI may have become less sexy, i.e., less ambitious, financially less pretentious, and the supporting music less loud – but it’s far from being dead.

Competition improving the public image

However, it is getting competition from its own ranks: In September 2021, Xi Jinping announced a new development initiative at the United Nations General Assembly, the Global Development Initiative. In contrast to Belt&Road with its ambitious infrastructure projects and multi-billion dollar investments, the GDI is closer to Western development concepts and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations with its goals of poverty reduction, improvements in the health sector, food security, climate protection and cooperation with civil society and international organizations like the UN Development Program (UNDP). Also significant, then, was the forum for its announcement, which was meant to signal China’s support for multilateralism and stem the accusation of being motivated only by self-interest.

As well, GDI project governance, which is under the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) launched in 2018, and funding with grants rather than loans through a Global Development and South-South Cooperation Fund (GDSSCF) are less odious than Belt&Road’s state-run institutions and banks. The stimulus to development promised by the GDI is also supposed to reduce conflicts in the world, thus backing up another new multilateral startup, the Global Security Initiative (GSI) proposed in April 2022. China’s multilateral activism, evidently designed to forge closer ties with countries in the Global South, will be complemented by a Global Initiative on Data Security and a Global Civilization Initiative.

Long Live BRI!

Nonetheless, in the slipstream of these various other ‘initiatives’, Belt&Road continues to proceed, although in a scaled-down and refurbished format. With almost $68 billion in funding last year (2022), it was 17 times larger than the pledges for the GDI development initiative. The new focal areas that are emerging continue to be clearly a reflection of the country’s economic self-interest: A stronger focus on China’s close neighbors such as South, Southeast and Central Asia; on a post-fossil modernization, by both exporting green energy technologies and importing the raw materials needed for them; by investments in digitalization (Digital Silk Road) and communication technologies; by diversifying investments into the manufacturing industries; and by establishing Special Economic Zones.

Belt&Road thus continues to be an essential vehicle for China’s wooing of prestige and allies in the Global South, for its own industrial modernization, and as a hedge against reciprocal competition for de-coupling and sanctions. Only when the government actually invites participants to the anniversary group picture this fall we will be able to see how relevant it actually still is. But maybe in the end Beijing will shy away from such a nail test: “Imagine it’s the Belt and Road Forum, and nobody shows up”.

Translated with (free version)

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