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Will China’s attempt to repackage BRI succeed?

The Third Belt and Road Forum (BRF) was concluded on October 18, in Beijing. The third edition had representation from23 countries spanning the globe. The motto repeated during the third BRF was ‘planning together, building together, and benefiting together’.This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by Xi Jinping. To mark the anniversary China has also released a white paper titled, ‘The Belt and Road Initiative: A Key Pillar of the Global Community of Shared Future’, on October 10. This year the BRF saw the signing of projects worth$97 billion.

The BRF calls for an analysis because the last 10 years have witnessed major ups and downs for the BRI and by extension how the world perceives Xi’s China. The major narrative attached to the BRI, when launched, was that everyone was to benefit from the initiative. However, within a few years, this narrative was challenged, and the world started waking up to the issues of debt trap, corruption, and environmental degradation. The Covid-19 outbreak and Beijing’s zero Covid policy further derailed and delayed several projects and investments under the BRI. Though the BRI is still a trillion-dollar project, there has been a40 per cent decline in investments since 2018. India, which was not invited for the third BRF, reiterated its stance against the BRI and theCPEC as not respecting Indian sovereignty.

China under Xi has used the BRI to extend its influence abroad. The initial characterisation of win-win proved to be attractive for the investment-starved smaller nations. As a result, China was able to successfully invest and finance several projects globally. However, the mood and characteristic has undergone a major transformation. China today is not only the largest investor but is one of thelargest debt collectors. The unchecked and over-ambitious projects which were funded by Beijing have pushed several smaller countries towards a debt trap. The most prominent being the Sri Lanka experience with Hambantota.

No surprises then that the world was keen to see who attended the forum. Though he has been skipping most international summits since the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant against him in March, the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin was not a surprise. Leaders fromSerbia and Hungary were also present. However, a photo showing the leaders who attended the forum indicates a decline in its global support towards BRI,from 37 in 2019 to 23 in 2023. Some of the prominent European leaders decided to skip this year’s meeting. To add to this, Italy has been very vocal about exiting the BRI by the end of 2023.

Such developments show that there is a need for Beijing to revisit its BRI blueprint. The world is not ready to accept the project in its current format. The changes in the global environment and the ongoing trade war between China and the United States has also challenged the BRI’s benign image which Xi has been promoting. This could be why Xi asserted that“we stand against unilateral sanctions, economic coercion, decoupling, and supply chain disruption”.

As it is Xi’s pet project, the BRI will continue to be central to the Chinese foreign policy. In the words ofRaffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore “too fast at the beginning anyway”. However, the question which needs to be addressed is was the speed of investment the critical challenge or is it the type and direction of these investments that is the problem?

The statements made during the BRF underscore that China is still considering the BRI as an alternative route to the Western-led development and investment. Even after numerous challenges and roadblocks, for Xi the focus and centrality of BRI has not diminished. China has been talking of smaller and greener projects under its Global Development Initiative (GDI). Which may be a new term to subsume the ongoing projects under the BRI umbrella.

However, can Beijing manage to challenge the sanctions and limitations imposed by the West on its ambitions of technological development. Its ongoing chip war with the US is pushing Beijing to reassert its centrality in the global supply chains (banning the export of critical minerals such as graphite) and further aggravate the Western fears.

China has also not shied away from leveraging its investments for geopolitical gains. Will the world accept the repackaging of the BRI under a new term, or moving ahead will China be meeting increasingly more resistance and questions with respect towards its true aims.

(Gunjan Singh is Assistant Professor, OP Jindal Global University.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 23 October 2023, 06:25 IST)

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