Belt and Road forums are ‘lovely when friends get together’
3 May 2019|

The second Belt and Road Forum, hosted by China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing last week, attracted 37 world leaders and delegates from 150 countries and 90 international organisations. There were also some conspicuous absences, with no high-level representatives from the US, Canada, India, Australia and New Zealand, though some of them sent officials. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, who was in North America at the time, sent a special envoy.

The massive scale of this diplomatic gathering reflected the extent to which the BRI is viewed with both hope and suspicion around the world. For developing economies, it represents an unparalleled opportunity to acquire something they really need—infrastructure. There’s wariness, especially among China’s neighbours that have worked with Beijing before, about the risks of being overstretched by high-interest-rate loans, questionable investment returns, and sometimes low safety standards. But the lack of other opportunities on such a scale—perceived or real—is making them brave it out.

Being invited to participate in the forum—or not—has diplomatic significance, but a country’s decision to attend doesn’t mean that it completely acquiesces to Beijing’s vision of the BRI. Most participants see the BRI as a set of offers from Beijing and its partners that can be negotiated and tailored in each case. Participation in the summit and the BRI gives them a sense of having options.

Xi welcomed his guests with a Chinese proverb: ‘Spring and autumn are lovely seasons in which friends get together to climb up mountains and write poems.’

The summit came as global concerns mounted over the nature and implications of this grand Chinese plan. For Xi it was an opportunity to demonstrate his responsiveness to recent criticism of the BRI and the challenges BRI signatories have faced. His promises included a debt-sustainability framework, an emphasis on green development, wider access to Chinese markets and a step-up of intellectual-property protections.

Xi declared that the BRI would make the world a more beautiful place with initiatives such as the Sustainable Cities Alliance and International Green Development Coalition, green investment principles for BRI projects, and a commitment to sustainable development. The host painted a rosy picture of the benefits that would flow from realising a community of common destiny.

But Xi didn’t have to do all the talking; many other leaders stood up in support of the BRI. They ranged from good friends of China, such as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, to global voices of multilateralism like United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde.

Pakistan was one of the earliest supporters of the BRI and it’s no surprise that its prime minister strongly endorsed Xi’s efforts. He said that in a world of geopolitical uncertainty, rising inequality and barriers to trade, the BRI offers a model of collaboration, partnership, connectivity and shared prosperity. Khan added, ‘We chose hope over despair, cooperation over confrontation’—a clear indicator of where he’d stand if he were pushed to make a choice.

Even higher praise came from Guterres, who noted China’s ‘central role as a pillar of international cooperation and multilateralism’ and added that the gathering reflected that commitment in turbulent times.

Guterres praised the increasing investment that China is making in developing sources of renewable energy—up last year by 25% to US$125 billion—and for its support for global action on climate change. He also said the BRI had assumed ‘remarkable and urgent importance’ by offering ‘a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the creation of an equitable, prosperous world for all’.

Guterres said the world would benefit from the BRI and highlighted its potential to further the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. ‘Let’s work together to restore trust’, he said, perhaps alluding to efforts to discredit the BRI.

The summit provided an opportunity for everyone to learn more about China’s intentions for the BRI and even for sceptics like Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to be converted. Previously he’d spoken of the BRI as an example of China’s ‘unequal treaties‘ and a ‘new version of colonialism’.

At the summit Mahathir said he was fully supportive of the BRI. He explained that he now understood it better and believed that the BRI was ‘not a domination plan by China’ but a policy developed by all the countries involved. He also welcomed Beijing’s plans to set up a one-stop centre in BRI member countries to facilitate external investments.

In the Philippines, just before the summit, resentment about China’s violations of territorial waters in the West Philippines Sea triggered protests. President Rodrigo Duterte, who is gearing up for mid-term elections, used harsh language towards Beijing and even referred to the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, a topic that he’s previously said was ‘better left untouched’.

But in his meeting with Xi last week on the sidelines of the forum, Duterte’s tone appeared to soften as he reportedly secured US$12 billion worth of BRI projects that are predicted to generate some 21,000 jobs and further Chinese support for his anti-drug campaign.

Nine heads of ASEAN member states were present. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, who had just emerged from a campaign for re-election, sent Deputy President Jusuf Kalla.

Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong, who was not invited to the first summit because of tensions with Beijing, was there this time and took advantage of the occasion to engage in a successful sideline dialogue with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc—yet another opportunity beyond the many ASEAN-centric meetings.

The scale and structure of the summit facilitated numerous other talks on the sidelines, highlighting the vast potential for delegates to hold bilateral and multilateral meetings with other attendees, an exercise in global consultation with Chinese characteristics.

Maybe enthusiasm for the event relegated caution to the background for the time being, but no alarm was raised about challenges to ASEAN’s centrality in this situation.

Summits are about diplomacy and power displays; by those measures, US$64 billion in deals and 283 ‘pragmatic outcomes’ would suggest that this one worked well. Beijing achieved what it wanted—praise and a vote of confidence from many world leaders. How long those good feelings can be sustained depends on the realisation of those grand promises. Sometimes ‘the mountains are low and the expectations high’.