The Second Belt and Road Forum
Dr Gunjan Singh

The second Belt and Road Forum (BRF) was held in Beijing from April 25-27, 2019. The first BRF was held in 2017. This BRF saw the participation of more than 150 countries underscoring the argument that the appeal for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has not actually diminished.

Since its announcement in 2012, the BRI has been under international scrutiny and has garnered a lot of negative publicity too. China has been portrayed as a country which is using the BRI platform and its economic resources to buy up the world and create a new kind of colonialism. The most prominent example in this regard is Hambantota. The leasing of the Hambantota port to Chinese companies gave impetus to the notion of ‘debt trap’ diplomacy adopted by Beijing.

India continued to boycott the second BRF too and stood firm on its objection of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This does not negate the fact that the number of countries keen to join the BRI has been increasing. In the words of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “the trade volume between China and countries joining the BRI has surpassed six trillion US dollars, with more than 80 billion US dollars of Chinese investment in those countries”, while 82 overseas cooperative parks had been jointly built by China and the countries along the route, creating nearly 300,000 jobs for local people.1 Even after achieving all that, the narrative and approach surrounding the BRI continues to be cautious.

Keeping in view the international perception towards the BRI in the last six years, Beijing appears to show keenness to reform and modify its grand narratives. Following the second BRF, Ms Deborah Brautigam, an expert on China-Africa relations at Johns Hopkins University has argued that, “China’s BRI isn’t debt-trap diplomacy, it’s just globalization with Chinese characteristics”.2 This analysis about the BRI is quite rare. Thus it is no surprise that Xi Jinping utilised the BRF to push for a new and benign narrative.

With this backdrop, the major takeaways from the second BRF are quite different. The speech delivered by Xi Jinping highlights that the first five years of the BRI were a good learning curve for Beijing. Xi asserted that there was a need to “act in the spirit of multilateralism, pursue cooperation through consultation and keep all participants motivated”.3 He also asserted on the need to have a cleaner and greener growth model and improve the living standards of people across the BRI.4 These statements underscore the argument that Beijing is keen to change the narratives around the BRI. China wants to portray the BRI as more inclusive and also counter the claims that the BRI projects were not paying required attention to the environmental concerns of the host countries. BRI projects in Myanmar have been facing major criticism. One can hope that such promises will lead to more scrutiny before new BRI projects are approved and financed.

In addition to the criticism, the ongoing trade war between the United States and China also played a major catalyst and thus the BRF cannot be analysed in isolation. Thus it is no surprise that in his speech Xi mentioned the Foreign Investment Law (FIL) and also measures to stop the forced technology transfers while addressing the issue of importing more agricultural and manufactured goods, services and also to look for ways to have balanced trade.5 The FIL has been regarded as an olive branch from China to the United States. Keeping in view the increasing economic slowdown and lower rates of domestic growth the Chinese government has been forced to accept some of the demands of the trade. However, the United States was missing from the second BRF.

What was different about the second BRF is that China did not announce any financial promises or monetary investments. The speech by Xi appeared more like a platform for ‘deflecting criticism’.6 The BRI has been facing consistent resistance domestically as well. A number of critics of the BRI in China have argued that the government should focus on developing its domestic economy rather than investing the money abroad especially in countries which may not be able to return the debt. The reducing domestic growth rates have led to demands for focused investment with in China.

Though it is not wrong to argue that the BRI is a globalization with Chinese characteristics, one cannot ignore the fact that no globalization can occur just one way. If Beijing wants the BRI to succeed it will have to accept the demands and characteristics of the other partner countries and develop a unique form of globalization. It cannot unilaterally push its own agendas and understanding. Beijing will have to keep in perspective the demands and concerns of India and the United States as well. Though the BRI has been expanding but coupled with the criticism and domestic resistance in the partner countries and an increasing resistance from West and New Delhi in Asia may become a major hurdle, something which Xi failed to address.

Endnotes
  1. “Explained: What to expect from the second Belt and Road Forum” by Sowmiya Ashok, The Indian Express, April 26, 2019 at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/taking-stock-of-china-belt-and-road-initiative-5695148/, (accessed April 29, 2019).
  2. “Is China the World’s Loan Shark?”, By Deborah Brautigam, The New York Times, April 26, 2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/26/opinion/china-belt-road-initiative.html?fbclid=IwAR3evvxBmI5EXLgrQKSO6mtFYTU_5rLbm4dbA_E2es8Tiii2ORcLng2AUww, (accessed April 29, 2019).
  3. “Working Together to Deliver a Brighter Future For Belt and Road Cooperation” Xi Jinping, The Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, April 26, 2019 at http://www.beltandroadforum.org/english/n100/2019/0426/c22-1266.html (accessed April 29, 2019).
  4. “Working Together to Deliver a Brighter Future For Belt and Road Cooperation” Xi Jinping, The Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, April 26, 2019 at http://www.beltandroadforum.org/english/n100/2019/0426/c22-1266.html (accessed April 29, 2019).
  5. “Working Together to Deliver a Brighter Future For Belt and Road Cooperation” Xi Jinping, The Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, April 26, 2019 at http://www.beltandroadforum.org/english/n100/2019/0426/c22-1266.html (accessed April 29, 2019).
  6. “Xi Jinping says BRI not an exclusive club; vows transparency amid global concern over predatory financing” Business Today, April 26, 2019 at https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/xi-jinping-says-bri-not-an-exclusive-club-vows-transparency-amid-global-concern-over-predatory-financing/story/340801.html, (accessed April 29, 2019).

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