The Belt and Road Initiative: A New Chapter for Fruitful and Win-win Cooperation

By Wang Xiaolong 

The pleasant autumn wind has brought a golden robe for the city. It was also in this beautiful season that President Xi Jinping proposed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during his visit to Central Asia and Southeast Asia five years ago. The idea was based on deep analysis of China and the world’s development and the future of humanity. Five years on, the BRI has become a popular public good bearing rich fruit. What started as an initiative by China has elicited global response and led to win-win cooperation throughout the world.

International support for the BRI is more broad-based. The past five years have seen the BRI making progress in leaps and bounds, delivering more outcomes than expected. As we speak, more than 130 countries and international organizations have signed BRI cooperation documents with China. In some places, practical cooperation is flourishing even before official agreements are signed. In May 2017, the inaugural Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) was successfully held in Beijing. Over 1,600 representatives from more than 140 countries and 80 international organizations agreed to leverage the role of the BRI in promoting peace, prosperity, openness, innovation and inter-civilization dialogue. In early September,the BRI captured the world’s attention once again as the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) reinforced the forum’s role as an important platform for China-Africa BRI cooperation. The BRI and its core concepts such as consultation, cooperation and benefit for all, and policy, infrastructure, trade, financial and people-to-people connectivity have been adopted by the UN, the G20, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into their outcome documents. These are all testimony to the international community’s broadening consensus around BRI cooperation.

Practical benefits of the BRI are more substantial. Total trade in goods between China and other Belt and Road countries in the past five years has exceeded 5 trillion US dollars, and China’s investment in these countries has surpassed 75 billion US dollars. Chinese companies have set up 82 economic cooperation zones in these countries, generating some 244,000 jobs and 2 billion US dollars of tax revenue for them. A mutually-beneficial cooperation network radiating from the Asian and European Continents across the whole globe is taking shape. Smooth progress is being made in a host of cooperation projects. The China-Laos railway, when completed, will help break the transportation bottleneck and transform the land-locked country to a land-connected one. The Puttalam Coal-Fired Thermal Power Plant in Sri Lanka is generating over 40% of the country’s electricity, relieving the power shortage headache for over 20 million people. The 472 meter-long Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway has started operation, a century-old dream come true. Piraeus Port in Greece, Borsod Chem in Hungary and Energias de Portugal (EDP) all got aboard the express train of the BRI, ending losses and regaining profits against difficult odds, and saving a large number of jobs and offering their employees the means to a better life. The China-Europe regular railway cargo service has become a main artery of international logistics and transportation, with over 10,000 trips reaching more than 40 cities in 15 European countries, improving connectivity between the Asian and European Continents. All these speak of the dividends BRI cooperation has brought to the people of participating countries.

The supporting system for BRI cooperation is being strengthened. As we speak, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank has started 24 projects in 12 member countries, providing 4.2 billion US dollars in loans and attracting over 20 billion US dollars of public and private funds. The Silk Road Fund has contracted 19 projects and committed 7.2 billion US dollars investment in support of projects of more than 80 billion US dollars. China National Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China set up special lending schemes and special credit lines equivalent to 250 billion and 130 billion yuan respectively. China and the International Monetary Fund jointly launched a Capacity Building Center. China and the United Nations Development Program established a joint working group to promote the BRI. China and the World Bank jointly hosted the BRI high-level workshop and the anti-corruption workshop. These mechanisms and events provide a strong underpinning for the sustained development of the BRI.

The reason behind the wide support and fruitful results of the BRI is that its openness, inclusiveness and focus on economic cooperation is in line with developing countries’ shared aspiration for development. However, misreading and misjudgement of the BRI emerges every now and then on the international stage. Labels such as non-conformance to international rules and standards, debt traps, neo-colonialism were attached to this initiative that champions win-win cooperation. We hope to clear misunderstandings arising from differences in history, language and culture through communication and exchanges. As to biases resulting from tainted glasses, we believe rumors will give way to truth, people will judge things by their own merits and fabricated rhetoric will pale in comparison to eloquent facts.

The accusation that the BRI does not conform to international rules and standards is false. China has all along advocated high-standard and high-quality BRI cooperation. Naturally, the BRI observes international rules and standards. The Joint Communiqué of the Leaders Roundtable of the BRF unequivocally states that in advancing BRI cooperation, countries should honor international rules, strike a good balance among economic growth, social progress and environmental protection, emphasize the importance of economic, social, fiscal, financial and environmental sustainability of projects, and abide by local laws and regulations. International standards are incorporated into BRI cooperation through instruments like the Paris Agreement on climate change, the UN Convention against Corruption and the UN Global Contract on corporate social responsibility. High EU standards apply to BRI infrastructure projects in Europe such as the Hungary-Serbia railway. The hydro power plant in South Asia, with participation from the Silk Road Fund and the International Finance Corporation was carried out entirely in accordance with international standards. As China has adopted up to 85% of international technical standards, the Chinese standards are largely consistent with international ones.

That being said,as the numerous participating countries of the BRI have varying national conditions and development stages, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to adopting rules or standards. Differences in some aspects do not need to stand in the way of dialogue and cooperation. The idea of connectivity promoted by the BRI covers not just infrastructure hardware, but also software including rules and standards. China stands ready to keep an open attitude and continue dialogue and communication with all countries and hopes that by pooling wisdom, we could advance mutually-beneficial BRI cooperation and achieve shared development. 

The accusation that the BRI is setting debt traps is baseless. The word debt, a neutral term in itself, is not necessarily linked to the BRI. The high debt level of some developing countries is caused by complex reasons, including their economic fundamentals, historical issues, and changes in the current international economic environment like rising protectionism, interest hikes in developed economies and fluctuation of large commodity prices. As to what and who are to blame for the debt issue, the developing countries concerned and their people have a clear idea and the international community has reached a fair conclusion. Some countries’ attempt to shift the blame by slandering others is bound to fail. The BRI was only proposed five years ago and Chinese enterprises have not gone global for long. So China is a latecomer in the international investment and financing market with a scale much smaller than that of Western developed countries. Thus it goes against facts and is not fair to blame developing countries’ debt baggage left over from history on China and the BRI. By no means can China be accused of setting debt traps for other developing countries.

Chinese investments overseas are mainly in infrastructure projects and are widely recognized as productive in nature. Such investments may not yield visible benefits immediately, but they are viable and valuable assets that will drive local economic growth in time and have great prospects to grow in value. When making decisions on overseas investments, Chinese companies will conduct rigorous feasibility study and evaluation to make sure that their decisions are commercially viable and within their capabilities. For heavily-indebted countries, instead of forcing debt repayment, China follows a flexible approach on the basis of bilateral consultation. In fact, the real problem for some developing countries is a “no development trap” caused by backward infrastructure, deteriorating business environment and shrinking foreign investment. These countries want to escape this “trap” with the help of Chinese investments and through financing cooperation with China. Those who hype up the so-called “debt trap” in some developing countries will only scare potential investors away, deprive these countries of foreign investments, and leave them stuck even deeper in the “no development trap”. 

—Accusing China of “neo-colonialism” is totally groundless. Colonialism in whatever forms features inequality between countries, economic depredation and interference in other’s internal affairs. The BRI, which follows the principle of consultation, cooperation and benefit for all, is a “sunshine initiative” that is open, inclusive and transparent. It is a symphony with all its participants playing their part and benefiting from it in the spirit of equality and mutual benefit. The BRI projects, such as the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, are built and run at the request of host countries on the basis of equal-footed consultation. They have nothing to do with national sovereignty. Guided by its principle of no interference in other’s internal affairs, no attachment of political strings, and no seeking of selfish political gains, China never imposes investments or projects on others. If there is a purpose to China’s initiative to build the BRI with other developing countries, it is to create new growth drivers and opportunities for common development.

Over the past two centuries, China suffered bitterly from colonialism and only won its national independence after more than one hundred years of tenacious fight. China fully understands how deeply developing countries value and aspire to achieve national independence, strength and prosperity. In the 21st century when peace, development and cooperation are the main trend, China, as the largest developing country in the world, will not repeat the outdated practices of hegemony or colonial expansion. The last thing we want to see is colonialism being imposed once again on developing countries. As for those countries and individuals that accuse China of “neo-colonialism”, they either know nothing about history or have a hidden agenda. It is time their false accusations were laid to rest. 

“Ants are so naive that they think there is no bigger world than their colony and they are powerful enough to shake a giant tree.” Slanders and rumors, which are usually caused by misunderstanding and bias, will not, at the end of the day, shake the prevailing trend of globalization and win-win cooperation that the BRI represents. 

As socialism with Chinese characteristics enters the new era, concrete steps are being taken for continuous progress of the BRI. At the 19th CPC National Congress, the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs and the Symposium marking the 5th anniversary of the BRI held in China over the past year, important decisions were made on the BRI, defining its direction and vision more clearly. Guided by the principles set out at the 19th CPC National Congress and the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, the Chinese government and people are making specific plans and focused efforts to turn the grand vision of the BRI into reality. These efforts will go a long way in China’s pursuit of high-quality development and new progress in opening-up in an all-round way, and in forging a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind.

The BRI will create new horizons for the opening-up of China and the world at large. The BRI, a modern version of the ancient Silk Road, will help China open wider and deeper and improve its participation in global economic governance. The ancient Silk Road was a symbol of China’s opening up to the world in the past. And now more than ever, China needs to open itself up in order to achieve development. The initiative of jointly building the BRI is a major step taken by China under the new circumstances to advance opening up across the board and an important platform for mutual benefits. It also meets China’s domestic need of high-quality and balanced economic development. By participating in the BRI, some regions in China will move to the forefront of opening up and acquire stronger drivers and bigger space for economic growth, and Chinese companies will achieve greater efficiency and better performance in “bringing in” and “going global”, creating even broader prospects for the Chinese economy.

An Ethiopian friend once said that one of China’s successful experience in development is opening up which can be shared with other developing countries through the BRI. Through the BRI, we wish to open China’s huge market to other countries, developing countries in particular, and seek complementarity for common development. Trade protectionism is incompatible with the BRI spirit and goes against the economic trend of the 21st century. Under the historic initiative, China will uphold the multilateral trading regime, promote international trade and investment rules that are just, equitable and transparent and promote an international environment more conducive to opening up and development. Through these efforts, China wishes to make greater contribution to an open world economy and rebalanced globalization that is open, inclusive, and beneficial for all.

The BRI will improve people’s well-being around the world. The BRI is an international public good, a great project that improves people’s well-being. Since its launch over the past five years, the BRI has delivered rich outcomes, showing the huge role it can play in improving infrastructure, driving economic growth and creating jobs. As the BRI goes deeper, countries will become more closely interconnected and better unleash their development potentials, and more developing countries will become part of the global value chain by joining the BRI. This will help rebalance economic globalization and realize the UN’s call for “Leaving no one behind”. Going forward, more attention will be given to project development, in particular livelihood projects that meet people’s urgent needs. In the meantime, as countries deepen cooperation in education, health, science and technology under the BRI framework, their people will see more tangible benefits in more areas and have a stronger sense of fulfillment and happiness.

The BRI will provide a new platform for international cooperation. China will hold the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2019 for BRI partners to share experience and build consensus for more cooperation outcomes. As the BRI is a sunshine initiative, preparations for the Forum will be open, inclusive and transparent. Countries are welcome to make suggestions on the building of the BRI and preparations for the Forum. We look forward to their active participation in the Forum events to share experience and map out future cooperation for solid, steady and sustained progress of the BRI.

With a strong tailwind, it is time to set sail. It is China’s intent to take concrete actions together with other parties step by step to advance the great cause of the BRI and ensure its success. When we go for stronger coordination for mutual benefit and win-win development, we help the world move toward a community with a shared future for mankind, and peace and prosperity.

Wang Xiaolong is Director-General of the Department of International Economic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.