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China’s Xi Defends Belt and Road, Aims for Leaner Greener Projects

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 18, 2023.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 18, 2023.

China’s President Xi Jinping defended his signature policy project at the opening of the Belt and Road Initiative forum in Beijing Wednesday, highlighting what he says are the plan’s successes over the past decade. With Russian President Vladimir Putin a star atendee at the gathering and at his side, he also outlined eight key areas where China aims to deepen development.

The forum, which was set up to grow global connectivity but included fewer heads of state than previous meetings, comes at a time when the world is increasingly fractured with war in Ukraine and tensions escalating in the Middle East. Some analysts say Beijing wants the forum to reinforce the impression that China is the leader of the developing world.

“The BRI has been China’s foreign policy agenda, and [the vision] that Beijing has presented [through the initiative] is that China contributes to the development of infrastructure and economy to the vast developing world,” Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a think tank based in Washington D.C., told VOA in a written response.

Leaders and representatives from 140 countries, mostly from the Global South, attended the two-day summit, including Russia’s Putin, who held a-on-one meeting with Xi on the sidelines of the forum. It is the first major international event that China has held since it emerged from the almost three-year-long pandemic lockdown in January 2023.

Lauding the achievements of BRI since 2013, Xi said the initiative has helped solve energy problems and created new economic corridors for many developing countries, while the ports, roads, and railroads built under BRI have allowed goods, funds, technology and people to circulate across continents.

Since its initiation, BRI has mobilized more than $1 trillion in investment, delivered at least 3,000 projects, and signed over 200 BRI cooperation agreements with more than 150 countries. On Wednesday, Xi praised the initiative’s success at turning blueprints into real projects.

Some experts say BRI projects and investment deals have sponsored much-needed infrastructure in developing countries. They have also allowed China to portray itself as the provider of advanced technologies such as electric vehicles, batteries, and renewable energy technologies.

“China likes to contrast the BRI’s development model to a failed Western-led development model,” Christoph Nedopil Wang, the director of the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, told VOA in a written response. He thinks such a model and style of communication resonates with some emerging economies.

In a veiled criticism of the U.S., Xi stressed that “ideological confrontation, geopolitical rivalry, and bloc politics are not a choice for us,” adding that Beijing opposes bloc confrontation, unilateral sanctions and decoupling. “Seeing other people’s development as a threat and economic interdependence as a risk will not allow you to live better and develop faster,” he said.

While Xi attempts to champion the superiority of China’s development model, some experts say the outcomes of BRI’s first decade paint a different reality. “China wants to copy and paste the idea of [driving] economic growth through building infrastructure to other countries, but China’s economic growth was more than just infrastructure,” says Niva Yau, a Japan-based nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

Yau says China’s economic growth is driven by a combination of infrastructure, low labor costs, a large amount of foreign direct investment, and skills transfer. Instead of exporting its entire economic model abroad, Yau says all China did was champion the idea of infrastructure. “That’s why BRI hasn’t quite worked 10 years later,” she adds.

Negative impacts of BRI’s first decade

While some analysts say China has positively contributed to global development through BRI, Western countries have criticized the initiative for leaving participating countries to cope with huge amounts of debt and environmental degradation.

A report published by Boston University earlier this month shows that recipients of Chinese finance “are subject to significant debt distress.” Additionally, development projects financed by Chinese companies “carry significantly higher risks to biodiversity and Indigenous lands” than development projects financed by the World Bank, the study said.

Yau from the Atlantic Council says many BRI projects have failed to materialize or caused a series of extended problems because China didn’t address underlying issues that have been identified through feasibility studies done by international organizations.

“Other international organizations have done feasibility studies on most of the BRI projects and they deemed these projects as non-profitable in most cases,” she told VOA. “Even if they could be profitable, there might be a lot of conditions that needed to be met before international organizations can invest in these big infrastructure projects.”

She said when Beijing comes in with a large amount of money but doesn’t fix the root causes, Chinese companies will often be associated with corruption and environmental destruction. “The host countries were never ready for these massive infrastructure projects,” Yau added.

To address some of these issues, Xi vowed to set up a system to evaluate the integrity and compliance of companies participating in the BRI, and “cooperate with international organizations to conduct research and training on integrity on the Belt and Road,” he said during the speech.

“Greener and smaller” BRI projects

To fulfill his pledge to prioritize “small and beautiful” BRI projects, Xi revealed an eight-point action plan Wednesday, promising to deepen cooperation in green infrastructure, facilitate technological innovation, and increase efforts to digitalize the global economy. Xi said China will promote both signature projects and “small yet smart” livelihood programs.

Data aggregated by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative U.S. think tank, also shows that the size of BRI investment deals may be shrinking. For the first six months of 2023, Chinese companies signed BRI-related construction and investment deals worth $40 billion, far less than before the COVID pandemic when BRI annual expenditures usually exceeded $100 billion.

Analysts say these announcements show that rather than replacing BRI with another initiative, China is focusing on transforming the scope and scale of BRI projects.

“The BRI is here to stay and will focus on issues such as green development and digitalization over the next years,” Nedopil Wang from Griffith Asia Institute told VOA.

He added that China will likely let the private sector play a bigger role in the BRI while shifting the initiative’s focus to “bankable projects” that can generate revenue. There will be “fewer projects related to public infrastructure due to sovereign debt issues in emerging economies,” Nedopil Wang predicted.