China is getting ready to welcome representatives from 150 nations, including senior leaders of 40 countries, to discuss its international infrastructure program at the second Belt and Road Forum, beginning Thursday and running through Saturday in Beijing.
Analysts say it is not merely a conference on infrastructure building, but an attempt by China to display its popularity and power as a political rallying force. This is significant in view of severe criticism by the United States, which has described the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, as China’s “vanity project.”
“It is a political show of strength. BRI has assumed the characteristics of a global public good,” said Sourabh Gupta, senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington. “In a sense, conceptually, it is about China slipping itself into American clothing which the U.S. itself has discarded. It is about mainstreaming China as a leader of the global development system.”
China has repeatedly denied it has a political purpose in trying to construct connectivity projects across the world. “The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is not a geopolitical tool but a platform for cooperation. We welcome all parties to take part in it,” Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a recent press conference.
The forum is expected to see an emphasis on the importance of multilateralism and its criticism of protectionism in business and world affairs. Some observers see this as a veiled attempt by Beijing to build up world opinion against the United States.
Countering US clout
Zhiqun Zhu, chair at the department of international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said the meeting will reflect China’s growing clout. “When the U.S. focuses on “America first” under President [Donald] Trump, China is quickly emerging as a leader in the global economy and global governance.”
Political clout comes from success in international affairs, however, and not by merely hosting political theater. Although China has achieved some success in its infrastructure program, it has faced several setbacks, with Sierra Leone, Malaysia and Myanmar canceling or scaling back previously negotiated construction deals.
“A lot of the forum will be an attempt at restoring the Belt and Road brand, which has been tarnished over the past two years,” said Jonathan Hillman, director of the Reconnecting Asia project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The U.S. has said it will not send a high-level delegation to the forum. It expressed disappointment at Italy’s recent decision to join the BRI. “Secretary Pompeo has very publicly gone to every corner of the world and denigrated China’s overseas development lending and projects-based model,” Gupta said, referring to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said no country has a right to stop others from attending the forum. “All countries have the freedom to participate, but they don’t have the right to prevent other countries from taking part,” he said.
Zhiqun Zhu said instead of running a smear campaign, the U.S. should work with China to ensure that investments in BRI projects are more rule-based and transparent.
Germany, France, Japan and Australia are expected to send mid-level officials. They have raised serious objections, saying they would like to see BRI become more transparent, environmentally sustainable and offer equal business opportunities to all participating countries.
“At the end of the day, Europe genuinely wants China to grow into the role of a ‘responsible stakeholder;’ but, responsible stakeholder-ship means that China needs to up its game and conform to prevailing international standards in its practices – be it trade, investment or development,” Gupta said.
India, China’s neighbor, is expected to stay away from the forum. It has said the BRI program violates the country’s sovereignty because some of its projects are located in Pakistan-controlled areas that India regards as its own. India was the only major country to stay away from the first meeting of the forum in 2017.
“India’s stand has increased international attention on some of the troubling aspects of the BRI plan,” said Ananth Krishnan, visiting fellow at Brookings India.
“India was the only country to publicly flag issues such as opacity and debt when the first Belt and Road Forum was held in 2017.”
Gupta at the Institute of China-America Studies thinks many of the objections raised against BRI will be sorted out in negotiations between China and different countries.
“A Chinese menu is on offer but it is not pre-set and it is not being force-fed to host countries,” he said. “It is for host countries, though, to impose themselves and set the minimum standards of project integrity – although China would do well to set a reasonably high bar in this regard of its own volition.”