During the last 10 years, Beijing hosted three Belt and Road Forums (BRFs) in an attempt to sell a worldwide dream based on the mythical appeal of the Silk Road narrative: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While initially the forum was meant to transform Beijing into a center of attention of world diplomacy and win new friends, today the BRF is mainly a gathering of the illiberal world.
In the autumn of 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping initially presented the ideas that would later create the Belt and Road Initiative: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. It wasn’t until two years later that Beijing came up with a vision plan that better outlined the BRI, leaving a gap of time for the media and many observers to romanticize the “New Silk Road” and define it through their own expectations. In this period, the BRI was seen largely through a positive perspective, built on the Silk Road mythology and hyped expectations of what it could become as a large-scale infrastructure initiative.
And China took advantage of this initial success of the BRI, leading to what was arguably the apex of the initiative: the first Belt and Road Forum organized in Beijing, in 2017. Back then, the BRI wasn’t stained by “debt trap” or “neocolonialism” accusations and many countries, even in the West, hoped it would bring prosperity and development. The first BRF was a hit, gathering important leaders from all around the word, including from Europe.
More significantly, the Forum was attended by leaders even from countries that hadn’t yet signed BRI MoUs, so they weren’t technically part of the initiative. Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, and Poland sent their prime ministers or presidents to participate in the first Belt and Road Forum, while Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Singapore sent government ministers. Even the United States sent a delegation led by Matt Pottinger, then senior director for Asia at the National Security Council.
For China, the first Belt and Road Forum was a large success, placing Beijing on the global diplomatic map as the host of an important high-level forum. The BRI and its forum seemed to be attracting U.S. allies and enlarging China’s circle of friends. For a while, the string of successes continued: In 2019, Italy even signed a BRI MoU, becoming the first G-7 country to join the initiative. But problems and accusations were already starting to undercut the BRI’s narrative and appeal.
Only five years later, the BRI’s magic has disappeared: Italy wants to leave the BRI and the Belt and Road Forum has become a summit of illiberal leaders and China’s old friends, with the most prominent figure being Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin was joined by Aleksander Vucic (Serbia), Viktor Orban (Hungary), Hun Manet (Cambodia), and Thongloun Sisoulith (Laos), among others.
The Belt and Road Forum in 2017 was the embodiment of the soft power that the BRI managed to generate for China. Leaders from all over the world came to China in search of new opportunities and investments, attracted by the mirage of the New Silk Road. In 2017, the BRF was a Chinese venue for a global diplomatic summit, based on economic appeal. But, in 2023, the Belt and Road Forum ceased to be a global summit that tells China’s story well, becoming instead a meeting dedicated only to countries that were already friendly toward China, many (though not all) of them having illiberal leadership. The BRF is no longer a summit that can generate soft power and influence for China, but a photo-op opportunity.
This is the consequence of the BRI’s new reality. Stained by debt trap accusations, perceptions of geopolitical designs, problems of corruption, and a lack of green endeavors, the BRI is at its lowest point. Despite all the attempts to reboot the BRI, like a dose of greenwashing or the new BRI White Paper from October 2023, the Chinese initiative remains affected by bad strategy and bad management of the BRI’s image, combined with the disillusion felt by many countries. Not all the BRI projects were implemented and not all were a success.
While the New Silk Road initially attracted Western enthusiasm and hopes, it lost them as soon as Beijing didn’t live up to expectations and problems came to the fore. Once the debt trap accusations were in place, China lost almost all the soft power that the BRI garnered over the years.
The 2023 BRF summit was just a shadow of the 2017 one. With no important Western leaders present, China tried to turn the narrative to its favor by claiming, according to “a source,” that developed countries’ leaders weren’t invited because “China is pursuing not scale and quantity, but quality and effectiveness.”
Yet the BRI was never about quality in media articles, government statistics, or leaders’ speeches. It was always about quantity. A mega-project worth $1 trillion, $3 trillion, or event $8 trillion; counting approximately 3,000 projects and around 150 BRI member states; covering 60 percent of the global population and almost a third of the global economy – all these mantras, based on a large amount of everything, narrated the BRI story over these 10 years.
Even at this 2023 forum, the accent was placed on quantity. While there were only 23 heads of state and government attending the BRF, the Chinese media only talked about the fact that there were “representatives” of over 130 countries, no matter that these “representatives” included journalists, businesspeople, or other non-official or low-level attendees.
The CEO Conference of the BRF also emphasized the quantity of MoUs the companies signed. China bragged about the 300 representatives who signed MoUs whose value reached $97.2 billion, although we know from past experiences that these MoUs rarely lead to a tangible follow-up agreement.
Based on these quantitative statistics, the third Belt and Road Forum was deemed a success by China, but it has been only an opportunity for fancy photos, handshakes and networking among leaders that already had close ties to China. The BRF is no longer a global diplomatic forum in the world’s spotlight, but a summit largely for illiberal leaders.