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As China's Belt and Road project turns 10, it's about more than just development

People walk past a decorative installation for the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on Sunday in Beijing.
VCG via Getty Images
People walk past a decorative installation for the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on Sunday in Beijing.

BEIJING — Representatives from dozens of countries are gathering in Beijing this week to mark the 10th anniversary of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a signature foreign policy initiative for China's leader, Xi Jinping.

Beijing says the BRI is a global good that helps close the infrastructure gap. But as China's relationship with the West continues to fracture, observers are scrutinizing the geopolitical implications of the initiative, and they say the list of high-profile attendees says it all.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is on hand. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is in town, too. And Afghanistan's ruling Taliban — not formally recognized by any government — say they are coming, too.

Beijing says that since its inception a decade ago, more than 150 countries have signed agreements under the auspices of the BRI. But controversies — from alleged predatory lending and crippling debt to environmental damage — have always surrounded the Chinese initiative.

Belt and Road has become a "geopolitical project"

When it was launched in 2013, an aim was to remove divisions between East and West, according to Una Aleksandra Berzina-Cerenkova, director of the China Studies Center at Riga Stradins University in Latvia.

"Belt and Road was about connecting to Europe, was about creating these links, reviving the old Silk Road," she says. "But as the years went by, it became clear that the Belt and Road — because let's not kid ourselves, of course it is also a geopolitical project, a geopolitical construct, not just an economic project — it was not being perceived with open arms in the West."

Although Chinese state-run companies have made significant investments in Europe, including in some critical shipping ports, some countries have been resistant to the project.

Britain once showed interest, but never joined; later, the head of its secret intelligence service warned of Chinese debt traps.

Italy signed on to BRI in 2019, only to become disillusioned and flirt this year with a possible withdrawal, citing a lack of economic benefits.

The United States, meanwhile, has criticized Belt and Road, with President Biden calling it a "debt and noose agreement" China has with other countries.

Journalists attend a press conference of the Belt and Road Forum at Beijing's National Convention Center on Monday.
/ Jade Gao / AFP via Getty Images
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Jade Gao / AFP via Getty Images
Journalists attend a press conference of the Belt and Road Forum at Beijing's National Convention Center on Monday.

China is wooing the "global South"

China has pivoted, focusing more on wooing the developing countries of the so-called "global South," including in Africa and Latin America, Berzina-Cerenkova says. And as China-U.S. relations deteriorated in recent years, Beijing's efforts intensified.

Through the Belt and Road, China has projected itself as one of the few countries putting development back on the table in international forums, and it's noticeable that Beijing's modus vivendi has set itself apart from democracies such as the United States, says Hong Zhang, a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School, who studies China's international development engagements.

"China wants to project an impression that it's championing the agenda of economic development — namely through infrastructure-building and industrialization," she says. "At the same time, Beijing has taken advantage of many critiques of the Western countries' approach to foreign aid, which contains conditionalities related to good governance and human rights, and seeks to portray itself as a pragmatic partner."

Marina Rudyak, an expert on Chinese aid and international development cooperation at Heidelberg University in Germany, agrees.

"[Beijing] uses that to argue that, well, we are not challenging the United States as the No. 1 where the United States is strong, mainly in terms of hard power. But we are projecting ourselves as an alternative power — and by the way, the better one. Namely, the one who takes care of developing countries and development," she says.

China's slowing economic growth has also slowed Belt and Road projects

While the Chinese approach has won buy-in from much of the developing world, it also alarmed Western democracies and some of their partners, and sparked competition in the development space.

In 2021, the European Commission — the European Union's executive branch — introduced an international investment and connectivity program called the Global Gateway. Last year, the U.S. launched its Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment at the Group of Seven summit. And last month, Washington provided its endorsement to the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridorinitiative.

With China's slowing economic growth, the volume of projects and the amount of money going into the Belt and Road Initiative have slipped or stagnated. This is happening at a time when an increasing number of debt-laden countries such as Zambia are undergoing debt restructuring.

So as a large creditor, China is also under pressure. A recent study by the New York-based research firm Rhodium Group showed that, over the last three years, over $78 billion worth of borrowing had turned sour.

Putin is in the spotlight at this week's gathering

Some pundits have questioned the Belt and Road Initiative's future. But this week's two-day gathering in Beijing shows that the political significance of Xi's signature project remains potent.

China says leaders and representatives from some 130 countries and 30 global organizations are expected to attend the event, where Xi will give a keynote on Wednesday.

Among the guests who set foot in Beijing this week, Putin is in the spotlight. While Russia is technically not a signatory to the Belt and Road Initiative, Putin's participation works in both China's and Russia's interests, analysts say.

Western nations have criticized Beijing for failing to condemn Putin's war in Ukraine — and some may see Putin's participation in the BRI gathering as a sign of a relationship that has deepened since the two sides declared it to have "no limits" on the eve of the Ukraine invasion, in February 2022.

This pool photograph distributed by Russian state-owned agency Sputnik shows Russia's President Vladimir Putin giving an interview to China Media Group at the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday.
Sergei Bobylyov / POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
This pool photograph distributed by Russian state-owned agency Sputnik shows Russia's President Vladimir Putin giving an interview to China Media Group at the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday.

But Wang Huiyao, the founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization think tank in Beijing, says China is the only major country left with a window open for communication with Putin, and it doesn't want to lose that.

"We don't want to close that door. So we need to save a little face for him," Wang, who also advises the Chinese government, says. Because China shares one of the world's longest borders with Russia, he says, it does not want to see the political situation in Russia destabilized.

There's a larger strategic element, too, notes Berzina-Cerenkova of Riga Stradins University. It's about global influence.

"Putin is a major endorser and a major supporter of the alternative global vision that Xi Jinping is trying to provide right now," she says. "So maybe the logic here on the Chinese side is that having Vladimir Putin stand shoulder to shoulder with Xi Jinping ... helps China to secure its position and its role in those regions that have grievances over the Western system."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.