Thursday February 29, 2024

Why the BRF is important

October 18, 2023
This photograph shows Russias President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan pose for a photo with heads of delegations participating in the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on October 17, 2023. — AFP
This photograph shows Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan pose for a photo with heads of delegations participating in the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on October 17, 2023. — AFP

President Xi Jinping is in the limelight again as the much-awaited 3rd Belt and Road Forum (BRF) for International Cooperation began yesterday in Beijing.

After convening the first two successful biennial BRI summits in 2017 and 2019 respectively, the Covid-19 pandemic bulldozed Beijing’s aspirations of properly institutionalizing the BRF. During most of the pandemic era, China followed a strict Covid policy where neither did Chinese leaders make foreign visits nor did they host many foreign visitors in Beijing. Due to this, the third BRF is also a befitting occasion to commemorate the 10th anniversary of President Xi’s flagship ‘project of the century’.

It must be mentioned that China has been using the BRFs to showcase the achievements of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and garner global support for its venture. The first two BRI forums were largely successful, both in terms of the number of heads of the states or governments who showed up as well as regarding the number of projects that were signed. For instance, 57 countries participated in the BRI forum in May 2017 in Beijing, including 29 heads of states or governments.

Thanks to EU-China Policy Dialogues Support Facility (PDSF) and Professor Li Xiaoyun and his colleagues from China Agricultural University, I was also in Beijing to speak at a BRI-related conference during that time. After attending some of the side-events, Beijing looked like what has been portrayed by Jonathan Hillman in his book ‘The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century’.

Hillman, director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC asserts that the participants in the first BRI forum included “royalty, presidents, merchants, and intellectuals and were a Noah’s ark of nationalities: Asians, Arabs, Africans, Europeans, Persians, and Russians”.

The same can be said of the second BRF held in Beijing in 2019, where 39 heads of national governments, delegates from 150 countries, 92 international organizations and over 6,000 foreign guests participated. President Xi was at the centre stage during the BRFs as he delivered keynote speeches and chaired the roundtable summit on both occasions.

President Xi also held a number of one-on-one meetings with various participating leaders. Unlike numerous developing countries which perceive the growing role of Beijing as paving a path for a multipolar world, many in the West or elsewhere (India) look at the rise of China from a different lens. Due to this, major powers including the US, EU, Japan, Australia and India had stayed away from the first two BRI forums citing various reasons such as strategic and security implications of the initiative to financial soundness, debt and financial risks to environmental and social concerns.

Because of the Ukraine war and now the looming war in the volatile Middle East, the global community is divided like never before. Besides conflict and war, humanity is faced with the existential challenge triggered by climate change. China has both the essential wherewithal as well as political capital to help countries of the Global South who are starving for financial resources to tackle their development challenges.

Aptly considered a ‘global factory’, China is the world’s largest trading nation, making and exporting diverse material from needle to aeroplane. According to one commentator, while “many large emerging economies specialize in primary commodities – Brazil in iron ore, Indonesia in rubber, and Russia in oil and gas – China’s advantage is overwhelmingly in industrial goods”. Due to this, from 1990 to 2013, the manufacturing sector averaged 88 per cent of China’s merchandise exports as compared to 50 per cent for Brazil, 46 per cent for Indonesia, and 20 per cent for for Russia.

It is on account of this tremendous advantage in the manufacturing sector that China is the largest trading partner of 125 countries, and is also the world’s leading exporter, manufacturer, energy consumer and auto market. While the US and its allies are largely embroiled in the Ukraine theatre to thwart Russian aggression and are now reorienting their focus towards the Middle East, China must remain focused on making the BRI a success to promote its own as well as those of the participating countries’ objectives – truly creating a win-win scenario that Beijing has been vehemently championing.

That said, critics of the BRI also argue that in recent years, there has been some scepticism and disillusionment. They assert that President Xi’s Jinping’s signature foreign economic plan is a ‘shadow of its former self’ because the Covid-19 pandemic as well as Beijing’s own economic slowdown have led to a slump in BRI projects. Hence, they are of the view that this time there is less enthusiasm about the BRI summit, particularly among several European actors.

Due to unabated trade war and strategic rivalry between the US and China, various governments in Europe are also pursuing the policy of de-risking and decoupling. It must be recalled that European countries represented a large bloc of the participating countries in the last two BRFs. About one-third of heads of states or governments who showed up in the 2017 BRF were from European countries. However, that figure dropped just slightly, to around 30 per cent for the 2019 edition of the BRI summit.

Nonetheless, a number of the heads of various states are confirmed participants and represent countries where China has undoubtedly invested billions of dollars in numerous infrastructure projects including building power plants, highways, highspeed railways and special industrial and export processing zones.

The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand. He can be reached at: