China Power

China’s Belt and Road Debate

Even as world leaders converge on Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum, some in China are calling for a slow-and-steady approach.

By Antara Ghosal Singh for
China’s Belt and Road Debate

Workers on a platform install flowers on a decoration in a shape of a train for promoting the upcoming Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, April 23, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

The Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation is underway in Beijing. The Chinese media has projected the three-day forum, from April 25 to 28, as China’s most important diplomatic event as well as the most anticipated and high-profile global event for the year. Around 40 foreign leaders and thousands of representatives from more than 100 countries and international organizations are expected to attend the conference, which will focus on the theme “together building the One Belt One Road and creating a better future.”

Ahead of the Second Belt and Road Forum, Chinese strategic circles are abuzz with debates and discussions on BRI – some conducting strategic review of the “Belt and Road” construction over the past five years, others locating problems and exploring their root causes or proposing solutions to ensure smooth implementation of this grand project in the following years.

To begin with, Chinese media and the strategic community are basking in the glory of getting Italy, the first G-7 country, to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). They argue that the addition of Italy is a “landmark event” that absolves China of the allegations of practicing predatory economics or “debt trap diplomacy.” According to Chinese analysts, Italy’s support proves that in spite of all the negative publicity  around the BRI, the charm of the “Belt and Road” and the international support for it remains intact and more and more sovereign states are eventually getting convinced that the Chinese initiative is rather conducive to their development and prosperity.

The dominant Chinese narrative is that this week’s forum will be a milestone in promoting the construction of the BRI, driving it from being a rough sketch (大写意) to an intricate painting (工笔画), from vision to reality. If the first summit was about familiarizing the concept and generating consensus at the conceptual level, the second forum — with higher specifications, a larger scale, and more activities — will focus more on the action and execution level. It is also hoped that unlike the first phase where the construction was mainly driven by the Chinese government, and the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), in the second stage, the government will step aside somewhat, giving a bigger role to private enterprises. The focus of the initiative is also expected to shift from hard (infrastructure) connectivity to soft connectivity, focusing more on policy coordination, popular projects, liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment, and joint efforts by think-tanks and media, among others.

The general expectations in China surrounding the summit are that it will (i) deepen consensus at the conceptual level, while eliminating the misunderstanding and “noise” surrounding the BRI; (ii) increase efforts toward better understanding and respecting the host country’s national conditions and demands and explore a more diverse path of cooperation; and (iii) exhibit the merits of the existing cooperation under the BRI and garner more support and participation from the international community, thereby expanding China’s “Belt and Road circle of friends.”

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Interestingly, while there is much domestic support for China to expand the Belt and Road circle of friends during the upcoming summit, there are also popular voices calling for “rationally slimming down” the initiative. Some Chinese strategists are of the opinion that the BRI has become too expansive and the infrastructure investment by China too large, causing the initiative to drift away from its original goals and objectives, become unnecessarily politicized, and result in excessive use of China’s foreign exchange reserves.

A recent report released by the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, observes that China had initially hoped to incorporate around 65 countries distributed in the hinterland of Eurasia as a part of the BRI, to achieve its three original objective of achieving internationalization (at least regionally) of the renminbi; establishing a China-led international market in addition to the ones led by the United States and Europe; and setting the international economic agenda, even if partially. But over the course of five years the scope of the project has been expanded beyond recognition and Chinese investments under the BRI has even superseded the post-World War II Marshall Plan.

China’s SOEs in the last five years have undertaken 3,116 projects distributed in 185 countries under the banner of the BRI and the contract value of the newly signed projects exceeds $500 billion, while the value of China’s total overseas assets stands at upwards of $1 trillion, the report claims. The study stressed that such “unrestricted” global investment is causing unprecedented burden on China’s foreign exchange reserves and is also unsustainable as per the current strength of China.

Not only that, but China’s hyperactivity under the BRI, the report highlights, has alarmed the United States, Europe, and the other major powers, who are interpreting it as a comprehensive attack on the Western-led world order and thereby taking  several countermeasures aimed at checking not just the progress of the BRI but also the overall rise of China.  Therefore, it is being suggested that China should redraw the boundaries of its BRI and focus primarily on Central Asia or China’s immediate neighborhood as the key target area for ​​the Belt and Road.

Meanwhile, a third perspective gaining popularity is that China should slow down and keep a check on the timing and pace of the BRI construction. A report by the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), an authoritative think tank in China, argues that China is rather rushing through the construction of the BRI. In the short term, that creates a global impression of being too aggressive, and thereby raising too many eyebrows over the intention behind the construction of this massive initiative. The CIIS report argues that the BRI is a “century project” and thus should be executed in a phased manner, through a step-by-step approach so that all that unnecessary public glare and “noise” around the initiative could be averted.

It remains to be seen how these popular narratives in China will influence Chinese policymaking, but the announcements made during the Belt and Road Forum will be a good clue.

Antara Ghosal Singh is presently working as a Research Associate at the Delhi Policy Group (DPG).  She is an alumna of Tsinghua University and Beijing Language and Culture University, China and National Central University, Taiwan. Before joining academic research, she has worked as a journalist.