The post-pandemic year of 2023 has seen a flurry of diplomatic activities in China, prompting headlines in Western media claiming that “All roads lead to Beijing.”
The embellishment doesn’t seem too far-fetched. This week, representatives from more than 140 countries will be in the Chinese capital to attend a high-level forum held as part of the events to mark the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping consecutively proposed building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The pairing later came to be known as Xi’s signature project for global cooperation in the past decade — the BRI.
The initiative draws inspiration from the historic Silk Road, where camel caravans and commercial fleets boosted the exchange of goods and ideas between the East and the West.
When the BRI was first unveiled, Europe was grappling with a recession stemming from debt and financial crises, while the United States was navigating its way through the post-financial crisis difficulties and the complexities of the war in Afghanistan.
The BRI has come to be seen as Xi’s response to the formidable challenges confronting the world. “Global growth requires new drivers, development needs to be more inclusive and balanced, and the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be narrowed,” he once remarked.
His aspiration was to establish a platform that would facilitate greater global connectivity, acknowledging, in his own words, that “it is difficult for any single country to go it alone or solve the problems the world faces.”
Using the historical symbol of the ancient Silk Road, the BRI champions connectivity across the globe and strengthens partnerships with participating countries.
Over the past decade, China has signed more than 200 BRI cooperation agreements with over 150 countries and 30-plus international organizations. More than 3,000 cooperation projects have been initiated.
Since its inception in 2013, the BRI has generated 420,000 jobs for participating countries and lifted about 40 million people out of poverty.
Lauding the BRI as a unique and extraordinary initiative in modern history, British scholar Martin Jacques said the vision of the BRI has continued to materialize and evolve, and has demonstrated vitality that no other initiative has.
The initiative has changed the world, he said.
When unveiling the BRI, Xi had envisaged the initiative to facilitate policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and closer people-to-people ties among participating countries.
Guided by such a vision, projects promoting connectivity have flourished worldwide.
The China-Europe Railway Express is a prime example. After a decade, it now connects more than 200 cities across 25 European countries.
Xi said the China-Europe Railway Express had effectively ensured the stability of the global industrial chain and supply chain and injected new impetus into the development of the world economy.
The Chinese president had personally graced a number of BRI connectivity projects.
Last year, after the G20 Summit in Bali, Xi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo watched the operational trial of the Jakarta-Bandung High-speed Railway through a video link.
The railway, jointly built by the two countries, was officially inaugurated earlier this month, as a flagship project of China-Indonesia BRI cooperation.
With a top speed of 350 kilometers per hour, the railway is Southeast Asia’s first high-speed rail line.
Across the globe, based on a framework comprising six corridors, six routes, and multiple countries and ports, the basic connectivity over land, maritime, air and cyberspace is in place through BRI cooperation.
“The building of a great infrastructure across from Asia to Europe and back, and down to Africa as well, is transforming the world’s economy,” said Stephen Perry, chairman of Britain’s 48 Group Club, describing the BRI as “the biggest transformative economic concept” in the history of the world.
BENEFIT FOR ALL
Observers have taken note of the BRI’s role in tackling a major challenge exacerbated by Western-style economic globalization — inequality.
The imbalanced distribution of benefits had widened the wealth gap between the rich and poor, between developed and developing countries, and within developed countries, they said of the global development model championed by certain countries in the West.
Xi, in his vision for the well-being of all humankind, emphasizes that no country or nation should be left behind.
“All countries and nations are equally entitled to development opportunities and rights to development,” he said.
The BRI has promoted modernization on a global scale, and it can be regarded as an important international public good provided by China to the world, said Zheng Yongnian, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen).
“An international public good, to put it more plainly, is something that can be enjoyed by both the rich countries and the poor ones,” he added.
As Xi once said, Belt and Road cooperation pursues development, is aimed at mutual benefits, and conveys a message of hope.
With a vision of providing an open and inclusive platform for development, China has shared its development opportunities through the BRI, delivering tangible benefits to local residents over the past decade.
One iconic project is the China-Laos Railway. On Dec. 3, 2021, Xi and his Laotian counterpart jointly announced the inauguration of this 1,035-kilometer rail line connecting Vientiane with Kunming.
The railway has seamlessly aligned the BRI with Laos’ aspirations to transform itself from a landlocked country to a land-linked hub on the Indo-China Peninsula.
As of May, the railway had employed more than 3,500 Laotian staff and indirectly generated over 100,000 jobs through its impact on logistics, transportation, trade, commerce, and tourism.
BRI projects also target the most pressing problems. While addressing a symposium marking the fifth anniversary of the BRI in 2018, Xi highlighted the livelihood projects that provide timely assistance and benefit local people. He also underlined the role of “small-scale yet impactful” BRI projects in improving people’s well-being.
“Almost every developing country wants more, not less, of China’s BRI. They need it,” said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, chairman of the Kuhn Foundation.
As human society faces severe challenges of deficits in governance, trust, development and peace, Xi has called on the world to enhance solidarity and cooperation, drawing from the traditional wisdom of “acting in good faith and being friendly to others” and “fostering good neighborliness.”
People-to-people ties are the social foundation of BRI cooperation. Xi himself has been an active participant in such exchanges, having frequently replied to letters from people of BRI countries, including Arabian artists, middle school students in Malta, and teachers and students of the Confucius Institute in South Africa.
BRI countries have extensively cooperated on exchanges in culture, tourism, education, think tanks and media.
By the end of June 2023, China had signed cultural and tourism cooperation documents with 144 BRI partner countries. Cities from 60-plus BRI partner countries have formed more than 1,000 pairs of friendly cities with their Chinese counterparts.
In the small county of Zheng’an in southwest China’s Guizhou Province, guitar manufacturing has become an unforeseen pillar industry thanks to the flagship BRI project China-Europe Railway Express.
But it was not just about business. Zheng’an has come to be known for its guitar culture. It has invited guitarists from Sweden, Spain and Brazil for musical exchanges and collaboration. Some of the musicians have even adapted popular Chinese music into guitar solos and released albums.
Peter Koenig, a senior fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, highlighted the BRI’s role in connecting people.
“The BRI is based on a growth of connectivity, not just connectivity through physical projects, but also through interchange of science, of research, of education, of cultural exchanges, and all of that link people together,” he said.
In the face of global challenges such as climate change and major infectious diseases, the BRI continues to adjust and diversify its cooperation efforts, exploring new areas of collaboration.
Xi has highlighted the need for the BRI to promote cooperation in new areas such as health, green development, digitalization and innovation.
The idea of building a green Silk Road was proposed by Xi in a speech delivered in Uzbekistan in June 2016.
He called for the BRI to promote green infrastructure development, green investments, and green finance, and urged efforts “… to make green a defining feature of Belt and Road cooperation.”
In 2017, China unveiled the Belt and Road ecological and environmental cooperation plan, aiming to enable eco-environmental protection to serve, support and guarantee relevant projects toward environment-friendly outcomes.
The S14 expressway in Poland serves as a recent example in this context. To protect the pristine environment and local fauna, the Chinese team enlisted environmental experts to conduct surveys along the designated route. Arrangements have also been made along the 16.3-kilometer road to minimize disturbances to the wildlife.
In 2021, Xi made a major announcement at the UN that China will not build any new coal-fired power projects abroad. This is seen as a major step in driving the transition toward green and low-carbon global development cooperation.
More BRI projects have shifted their focus to new energy.
The Kapshagay photovoltaic power station, one of the largest single solar power projects in Kazakhstan, is an example.
Nan Yi, chairman of the Chinese energy company involved in the project, said that, to date, they have completed the construction of six new energy stations with a total capacity of 380 megawatts, which can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by one million tonnes annually.
E-commerce has become another emerging domain of BRI cooperation. China has established bilateral mechanisms for e-commerce cooperation with 30 countries spanning five continents.
As Xi articulated in his keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017, the BRI originated in China, but has delivered benefits well beyond its borders.
“We will open our arms to the people of other countries and welcome them aboard the express train of China’s development,” he said.