Belt and Road Forum Signals Shift in Beijing’s Objectives

Chinese President Xi Jinping is hosting representatives from roughly 130 countries this week for a two-day Belt and Road Forum, marking a decade since Beijing launched its signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a vast infrastructure and energy network connecting Asia with Africa and Europe through overland and maritime routes.

The BRI has been welcomed by some, especially in the Global South, for providing much-needed infrastructure financing. But it has also been criticized for allegedly leaving recipient countries in a “debt trap” and causing (albeit unintentionally) incidents of corruption and environmental damage.

BRI activity tapered off in recent years but now seems poised to regain momentum — with somewhat of a shift in focus.

Tightening the belt

Analysts say that from Beijing’s perspective, the BRI has mostly accomplished its two initial goals: one, putting to use its excess construction capacity and leveraging its financial resources to support revenue-generating projects overseas, and two, increasing goodwill among recipient countries and gaining policy influence with their governments.

Nevertheless, Beijing is expected to rein in the costly and large-scale infrastructure projects that were a hallmark of the BRI’s first decade, prioritizing now smaller-scale projects in the high-tech and green energy sectors. China sees both sectors as opportunities to fuel domestic growth, gain a foothold in global supply chains, and help the country avoid Western efforts to constrain its growth.

Southern strategy

Another shift apparent in this week’s Forum is the BRI’s intended audience. While the Global South was always Beijing’s top priority, over the years, the initiative expanded to include some countries in Europe.

But few EU leaders made the trip to Beijing. That includes Italy and Greece, who were once BRI enthusiasts but have since cooled on their countries’ involvement due to concerns about overdependence on the Chinese economy. Hungary’s Viktor Orban was one of the highest-profile European leaders in attendance at this week’s Forum. Russian President Vladimir Putin also attended, meeting with Xi on the sidelines and reaffirming not only his support for the BRI, but his country’s close partnership with China