The recently held Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing marked a significant milestone as China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) celebrated its 10th anniversary but participation from leaders, particularly from Europe, was muted in what is a setback for mega initiative in the continent in backdrop of debt diplomacy.
Contrary to the euphoria associated with the launch of the forum, the 10th anniversary was a muted celebration as many of the Chinese investments in Asia, Africa and Latin America have come home to roost as debts for recipients are rising.
Although previous editions of BRF had prominent world leaders, the 2023 forum had significant omissions in terms of attendance and proceedings. While Beijing touted participation of representatives from over 140 countries, the 2023 forum saw several leaders choosing not to attend, including those from Greece, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Switzerland.
A distinctive feature of the 2023 BRF was the absence of the “Leader’s Roundtable” and a joint communique that had traditionally concluded previous forums in 2017 and 2019, ET has learnt.
Several European countries’ non-participation can also be attributed to shifts in their foreign policy priorities or concerns about China’s debt diplomacy. Even Central Asian republics, where Chinese leaders are striving hard to spread their influence did not attend in entirety with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan choosing to stay away from the forum. Additionally, Malaysia and the Philippines did not send their heads of state or government for the first time.
But China tried hard to spread its charm offensive in the Global South as evident from the presence of Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who is the chair of the New Development Bank.
President Xi Jinping’s speech aligned with these efforts, which mentioned China’s opposition to unilateral sanctions of the West, economic coercion, and the rhetoric of ‘decoupling.’ This speech positioned the BRI as a part of China’s efforts to support the Global South in its struggle against colonialism and developmental injustice, portraying China as a counterforce to Western dominance, sources explained.
Xi Jinping also attempted to position China in the international development framework by claiming Beijing’s adherence to the principles of “open, green, and clean cooperation,” and the pursuit of “high-standard, people-centred, and sustainable cooperation.”
More importantly, perhaps realizing the complexities associated with the implementation of massive and unwieldy infrastructure projects, the 2023 BRF also highlighted the shift towards “small and beautiful” BRI projects. This approach, now termed “small, yet smart,” emphasizes smaller-scale projects that resemble traditional foreign aid initiatives from the West.
This demonstrates China’s recognition of the importance of a more diversified approach, which will allow it to play on its digital strength, green development alongside smaller-scale ventures, sources said.
China’s commitments at the BRF come in the backdrop of the notoriety BRI has achieved in creating unsustainable debt burdens for recipient countries and contributing to environmental degradation. A report from Boston University has revealed that nations receiving Chinese finance often experience significant debt distress, while development projects funded by Chinese companies pose higher risks to biodiversity and indigenous lands.
Specifically, it adds that China’s overseas a fleet of fossil-fuel power plants that emit around 245 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, contributing to climate change. Other critics have pointed out that numerous BRI projects have failed to materialize or have led to prolonged issues, as they disregard underlying problems identified in feasibility studies conducted by international organizations.
Issues like insufficient readiness in host countries for large infrastructure projects, corruption, and environmental destruction associated with Chinese investments have also accentuated the problem, sources alleged.