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Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday laid out a vision for a revamped version of his signature “Belt and Road” investment initiative and promised continued economic support for nations that sign on to China’s remade world order.
With guest of honor Russian President Vladimir Putin, who shares his discontent with the Western-led world order, Xi presented the plan as an alternative route to riches than that offered by the United States and other industrial democracies, which he accused of holding back developing nations with trade sanctions and demands for political reform.
“We do not engage in ideological confrontation, geopolitical games, or form confrontational political cliques,” Xi said from the Great Hall of the People, where representatives from more than 140 countries, largely from the Global South, were in attendance.
It is a decade since Xi unveiled plans to rebuild the ancient Silk Road, and with it, reshape global trade and politics with China planted firmly in the center.
His signature project has ballooned into a $1 trillion endeavor, but it is still only a loosely coordinated network of power plants, ports, roads and railways. It has generated significant controversy, with host countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal struggling to overcome mounting debt distress, while in countries like Laos, activists fear Chinese largesse is laced with threats to national sovereignty.
In an effort to recast the initiative, Xi on Wednesday pledged a greener, higher-tech, more targeted and more interconnected phase of the project that would turn the “lowlands of development into the highlands of prosperity.”
He also painted it as necessary in an increasingly polarized world, taking aim at American and European efforts to “de-risk” supply chains by reducing dependence on China. “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.
China has shifted from major infrastructure to smaller technology projects as its ability to fund overseas projects has been constrained by mounting debt and a slowdown at home. A raft of policy support secured 4.9 percent economic growth during the past three months, despite a continuing downturn in the property sector, data released on Wednesday showed.
But Xi has shown no sign of abandoning a project that remains central to China’s efforts to challenge the U.S.-led world order. This year alone, projects worth $40 billion have been launched under the scheme, according to the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank.
The Belt and Road Initiative began as an effort based on huge construction projects, but it has evolved into a slimmed-down vehicle for China’s geostrategic goals and a way to help sanction-proof its economy, the Eurasia Group said in a note.
Beijing has long considered Moscow a critical friend in that effort, forging their “no limits” partnership and ignoring Western-led efforts to censure Putin over the invasion of Ukraine and an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for the unlawful deportation of children.
This is only the second time Putin has left Russia since his March indictment, after a trip last week to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.
Putin, stepping onto the stage to deliver remarks after Xi’s, praised China’s achievements and touted a shared desire for global economic progress that respects “civilizational diversity and the right of each country to its own model of development.”
While China has emphasized the globe-spanning nature of the Belt and Road Initiative, saying it is open to any country, the focus of Chinese investment has been primarily on emerging economies, and that emphasis has only grown as China’s relationship with the west has soured. Italy, the only Group of Seven industrialized economy to sign up, is looking for a way to exit the scheme.
Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, was the only European Union leader at the forum. He met Putin on Tuesday, in another diplomatic win for the isolated Russian president.
Putin’s prominence at this forum — he and Xi strode to rousing music through golden doors into a banquet hall on Tuesday night, where Xi promised another “golden decade” of the initiative — shows how China now favors building relations with countries not aligned with the West, because many leaders will be unwilling to share a platform with the Russian leader, analysts said.
The initiative also remains “helpful for China’s ambition to form an alternative convening space for emerging economies,” said Christoph Nedopil Wang, director of the Asia Institute at Griffith University in Australia.
China has been cagey about the invite list for this forum and whether there have been any last minute cancellations caused by the war between Israel and Hamas, but there appear to be fewer Arab nations in attendance than at the last forum, in 2019.
Xi is deeply, personally invested in the Belt and Road Initiative. It has been written into the charter of the Chinese Communist Party and is regularly touted as a key plank in Xi’s personal approach to diplomacy. New initiatives on global development, security and “civilization” are framed as extensions, rather than replacements, of the Belt and Road.
A white paper released last week lays out Xi’s bold claim that China, through the Belt and Road, offers a new route to wealth for nations disillusioned with Western-led globalization, and promises a greater share of spoils for the Global South if the world develops according to Beijing’s playbook.
“It is no longer acceptable that only a few countries dominate world economic development, control economic rules, and enjoy development fruits,” the paper stated.
Chinese nationalist commentators where quick to draw a contrast between what they claimed were scenes of serenity in Beijing with the destruction in Gaza — a conflict that was blamed on failed American foreign policy.
“A war rages in the Middle East and war is imminent … The United States is not idle either,” wrote Niu Tanqin, a popular foreign affairs blog with ties to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. “In Beijing, we are celebrating and a grand event is about to be held … The world is taking fire every day and China is working hard to fix it.”
Shepherd reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Li from Seoul.