The third Belt and Road International Cooperation Summit was held in Beijing on Oct. 17 and 18, as China celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with more than 140 countries, 30 international organizations and 24 heads of state in attendance. This makes it a significant annual diplomatic event in China.
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) proposed the “Silk Road Economic Belt” strategy and the Maritime Silk Road, the sea route portion of what would become the BRI, during visits to Central Asian countries and Indonesia.
Over the past four years, significant developments have altered the global landscape, including the start of a US-China trade dispute launched in 2018 by then-US president Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the Beijing summit, which was held amid the conflict between Israel and Hamas, highlighted the significance of the BRI over the past decade.
The first perspective to consider when looking at the state of the BRI is China’s growing relationship with Russia, which got a boost from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attendance at the summit.
The “One Belt, One Road” initiative, aimed at promoting economic cooperation between Europe and Asia, has been supported by Russia, although it maintains a cautious approach toward China’s growing dominance on the world stage.
Russia’s participation in the BRI is important, but Moscow has been severely affected by economic sanctions imposed by Western countries, particularly the US, following its invasion of Ukraine. To help alleviate some of Russia’s economic pain, China released a position paper last year, “China’s Position on the Political Resolution of the Ukraine Crisis,” which shifted Beijing’s stance of nonintervention to promoting peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv.
Xi visited Moscow in March and signed statements on strategic partnerships and economic cooperation with Russia. This was the second meeting between the countries’ leaders that year.
Xi said that China-Russia relations are improving as they deepen their political mutual trust, close strategic coordination and record-high bilateral trade volume.
Second, Putin has proposed the Northern Sea Route, a shortcut between Russia and China through the Arctic Circle. Climate change has opened up new routes, reducing sailing time from Asia to Europe by half. Russia is welcoming BRI partners to utilize the route, and declared that it would be open year-round, with Moscow providing icebreakers, and communication and supply maintenance services.
The Northern Sea Route is strategically and economically important for Russia and China, but its risks and effects on the arctic require further observation.
Third, Russia is gradually shifting its focus toward the Pacific Ocean, while China is facing a complex situation in the South China Sea. The US is aligning with the Philippines, Vietnam and India over disputes in the region. This is creating obstacles for the Maritime Silk Road, which was initially considered a key part of the BRI, but is now focusing on land-based routes.
The BRI’s original intention of creating an economic cooperation structure between Europe and Asia has evolved, with a renewed focus on “high-quality joint construction” for “common development and prosperity.” China has been investing in infrastructure and production capacity along BRI routes, with an emphasis on “high-quality” projects.
Xi’s recent actions to support the BRI include promoting cooperation, green development, scientific innovation, people-to-people exchanges and better societies, as well as strengthening the initiative’s international cooperation mechanism. The BRI is now more focused on Central Asia and Eurasia, with participating countries becoming increasingly inward and continental, diverging from Beijing’s original vision of comprehensive economic and trade cooperation.
Fourth, the US and leading Western countries have implemented countermeasures to the BRI, such as the US’ “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” and the EU’s “Connecting Europe and Asia” blueprint. International cooperation has been demonstrated in initiatives such as the Blue Dot Network, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment and the Tripartite Economic Corridor Program.
The international landscape showcases the power struggle among the US, China and Russia, with the latter two aligning with the Global South, while a Western democratic alliance, led by the US, opposes them. Additionally, there is increasing global competition between land and sea powers.
The success of the BRI largely depends on China’s influence, which was favorable for the export of goods and capital from 2017 to 2019. However, the current economic slowdown in China due to the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war has affected its investment and expenditure, and the significance of “One Belt, One Road” has shifted.
While the BRI remains an important piece of China’s foreign policy, ongoing US-China strategic competition, including Washington’s attempts to suppress China’s technological development, poses a challenge. Many of the countries participating in the BRI have inadequate scientific and technological capabilities, and weak governance, which might make it difficult to achieve the initiative’s new “high-quality” goals for joint construction in areas such as the Internet, green energy, technology and integrity.
Meng Chih-cheng is an associate professor in National Cheng Kung University’s Department of Political Science.
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