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China and global development: What to read after the third Belt and Road Forum

Written by Linda Calabrese

Belt and Road Forum 2023
Image credit:Heads of delegations participating in the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Image: beltandroadforum.org

Welcome to the October issue of our China and global development round-up.

The third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing has concluded, injecting new vitality (and new capital) into the initiative, and reiterating a shift towards smaller but more impactful projects, green infrastructure, and the overall role of the BRI as a tool for development. This issue of the round-up will be slightly different from the usual, focussing exclusively on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In this edition, I recommend eight top resources to read, watch and listen to about the BRI ten years after it was launched. These resources cover the key documents, reactions to the BRI forum and broader analysis.

The Basics: Key BRI documents

Resource 1: The BRI White Paper

The best way to understand the Chinese government’s vision of the BRI is to read the official documents and speeches. A crucial document is the BRI White Paper, titled “The Belt and Road Initiative: A Key Pillar of the Global Community of Shared Future”. The White Paper spells out what the Chinese government sees as the achievements of the initiative, for instance, in terms of infrastructure development and connectivity, as well as its future direction (in a nutshell, “open, green and clean cooperation towards inclusive and sustainable development”). It also explicitly frames the BRI as ‘a solution to development problems’, in line with the Chinese government’s view that ‘development is the master key to solving all problems’.

This White Paper joins a series of official documents providing details on the BRI, which also includes the ‘Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt &21st-Century Maritime Silk Road’ (2015); ‘Building the Belt and Road: Concept, Practice and China's contribution’ (2017); and ‘The BRI: Progress, Contributions & Prospects’ (2019).

Resource 2: Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at the BRI Forum

Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at the BRI Forum provides clear insights into the future of the initiative. If in the past couple of years there have been discussions about the end of the BRI, Xi’s speech makes it clear that this is not the case, and that the Chinese government intends to infuse new energy into the initiative. The speech highlights the focus of future BRI projects, such as a transition towards smaller and more impactful projects (referred to as “small and/or beautiful”) and towards an emphasis on green development, science, technology and innovation, and people-to-people exchanges. Additionally, it makes two new announcements: in terms of finances, it announces the creation of financing windows for China Development Bank and China Eximbank, as well as a capital injection into the Silk Road Fund; and in terms of administration, it announces the establishment of a BRI Forum Secretariat.

Reactions to the Forum

Resource 3: The China-Global South podcast analysis

The China-Global South Podcast hosted a discussion on the outcomes of the BRI Forum, particularly focusing on Africa. They discussed whether the $100 billion in financing announced at the Forum contradicts the stated preference for “small and beautiful” projects. The discussion also focuses on the African leaders attending the summit. I found the discussion on Abiy Ahmed’s mention of “dignified development” at the Forum really hits the nail on the head, explaining China’s popularity among many countries in the Global South, which are tired of being seen as aid recipients rather than partners.

Resource 4: China Dialogue’s take on the Forum

The independent organisation China Dialogue published its take on the BRI Forum. Their experts emphasise a few key areas discussed in the forum including the greening of the BRI, the participation of African leaders seeking infrastructure finance, the limited turnout of Latin American countries (only the leaders of Chile and Argentina attended the forum), and the unveiling of a special thematic forum on ocean cooperation - a new focus for the BRI.

Broader analysis

Resource 5: Global South perspectives on the BRI

The framing of the BRI discussion as a ‘China versus the West competition’ can be very frustrating, as it ignores the perspectives of the low- and middle-income countries that host many of the BRI projects. So last month, ODI organised an event in Brussels to provide a platform for these countries’ governments to share their views on the BRI. It was very eye-opening to hear first-hand accounts from Kenya and Sri Lanka, two countries that hosted contentious BRI projects, about their perspectives on the initiative.

Resource 6: The BRI at 10

The 10-year anniversary of the BRI has prompted the publication of numerous reports, analyses and retrospectives on the initiative. The Global Development Policy Centre at Boston University published one such comprehensive report, which looks at both the benefits and challenges encountered by host countries. The report highlights benefits such as new financial resources for the Global South, significant economic growth, and the co-creation of a new model of South-South cooperation and developing country agency for development. However, it also raises concerns about debt distress, increased carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution, and risks to biodiversity and Indigenous lands.

I think some of these points need to be qualified. In particular, the claim that the BRI delivered economic growth needs to be analysed at a granular level, on a country-by-country basis. For instance, recent analyses of Pakistan have shown that, despite massive capital deployment, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has not delivered significant economic growth (see here and here).

Resource 7: Global China Pulse

The latest issue of the Global China Pulse includes a forum on the BRI, featuring several interesting articles covering various aspects of the initiative - from the environment and discursive change, to the impact on local communities to changes in urban geographies. I particularly enjoyed reading Hong Zhang’s “How the BRI changed China”, which examines the role of provincial and municipal entities in the initiative. Zhang argues that the BRI has led China’s inland regions to become embedded in international trade and investment networks, creating a new ‘constituency’ in favour of open international exchanges. The article also discusses how competition among local governments will test the central state’s capacity to regulate and coordinate localities. While not strictly development-related, these points are important as they may shape China’s political economy, and with it, the future of the BRI.

Resource 8: Who gains the most from China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

Prior to the Forum, The Economist released a podcast in which one of their correspondents travels on a Chinese-financed railway in Lao PDR. While imprecise at times (e.g. it mistakenly refers to Chinese investment throughout, when in reality it talks about Chinese lending), I found this podcast interesting nonetheless as it pretty much touches on all aspects of the BRI – the infrastructure development, corruption, wildlife trade, local perceptions. It offers first-hand insights into Chinese-developed projects in Southeast Asia, reminiscent of the research we, at ODI, conducted on the Belt and Road in Cambodia. I recommend it to those seeking a vivid understanding of these projects.