Ten years after launching the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing finds itself in a precarious balance between the self-proclaimed inclusiveness of the initiative and its shrinking flexibility in intensifying conflicts. With fewer foreign leaders visiting Beijing, this grandiose summit reveals the inherent tension between inclusive value and China’s diplomatic practice in a more divided world.
“The multipolar world is being created on its own, as a fait accompli, and China’s BRI has made positive progress,” said Vladimir Putin to Chinese state-own media on 15 October. Just a day later, he arrived in Beijing to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the BRI, marking his 19th visit to China. While the BRI undeniably contributes to China’s burgeoning global influence, the escalating global competition and growing conflicts along this new Silk Road cast a spotlight on its self-proclaimed value of inclusiveness.
In China, celebrating grandly at the tenth-anniversary mark is a long-standing political tradition. However, it may be somewhat disconcerting for Xi Jinping that the number of foreign heads of state attending the event has dwindled from 37 to 23 when compared to the BRI summit in 2019. Moreover, a significant portion of the attending leaders represent less developed or developing countries, whereas major economies with robust economic ties to China, like the European Union and the United States, opted not to send delegations.
China’s display, despite such absences, is reminiscent of the Third World policy pursued during the Maoist era – to counterbalance imperialist influence by aligning with developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It may have been useful for Mao Zedong’s revolutionary struggle at the time, but today it invites doubt over the sustainability and coherence of the BRI as China’s economy slows.
Three shifts that crystallize China’s dilemma stood out from Xi’s speech at the opening. First, he shifted focus from large-scale investments and government involvement to promoting “small and beautiful” projects with more private capital. This emphasis on the private sector in a market-based and commercialised manner mirrors the Western countries’ reluctance to rely excessively on state-owned companies and their longstanding call for broader market access. Second, Xi stressed the importance of “soft links” based on norm dissemination and institution building, departing from the previous emphasis on infrastructure and logistical construction. Finally, Xi discussed at length the risks of decoupling, presenting China as a treasure ship committed to fostering common prosperity and bridging differences. All these adjustments reflect the changing external environment and policymaking mindset.
Today, four years after the second BRI summit in 2019, significant transformations have occurred in geopolitics. China’s economy grapples with worsening fiscal constraints and an ongoing debt blowout from the real estate crisis, limiting its capacity for foreign investments. Externally, the BRI’s geopolitical pivots are embroiled in deep conflicts. The resurgence of the Taliban has posed challenges to investment environments in China’s western border regions and Central Asia. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has compelled China to take sides between the two BRI signatories, undermining its international image as an honest broker. Most notably, in the recent Palestinian-Israeli conflict, China has clearly aligned itself with the Palestinian side, positioning itself in opposition to another BRI participant. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has openly expressed his view that Israel’s military actions exceeded self-defence, and has supported efforts to restore the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. This stance aligns with an earlier draft submitted by Russia at the UN Security Council that sought to omit Hamas’ responsibility for the deadly attack on festival goers in Israel.
This deepening involvement in regional conflicts, and the growing practice of a “friend-enemy dichotomy” in Beijing’s foreign policy, has highlight the inherent tension between realpolitik and the inclusive spirit of the BRI. China’s stance toward Israel and Ukraine has cast a Cold War shadow over the BRI’s prospects.
Traditionally, China has remained insulated from the troubled conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, adopting a flexible, neutral stance. Prior to recent events, both Ukraine and Israel were active participants in the BRI. As early as 2020, China and Ukraine signed a comprehensive cooperation plan encompassing infrastructure, energy, finance, science, and technology. Geopolitically, Ukraine serves as a crucial link connecting the initiative from Central Asia to Europe. However, China’s apparent favouritism toward Moscow has left those in this vital region disillusioned with the BRI.
Similarly, Israel has been deeply engaged with the BRI and is a founding member of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Of particular note is the substantial investment by Chinese State-owned enterprises in two of Israel’s major seaports, Haifa and Ashdod, seen as a precursor to China’s strategic expansion in the Mediterranean. These investments have no doubt posed a challenge to US military presence. In sum, Wang’s Manichean approach to Israel and Palestine has had a detrimental effect on relations, and is likely to create further ambiguity for the future of Sino-Israeli relations.
The summit, by all accounts, did not provide Xi Jinping with a satisfying boost to his overall grand strategy. Major economies have grown wary of China’s initiatives, and power struggles such as in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine issues have eroded China’s commitment to inclusive endeavours. This heightened competition along the Silk Road has compelled China to make realpolitik-driven choices.
Nonetheless, these challenges do not signify the abandonment of the BRI. On the contrary, in Xi’s vision the BRI will gradually transition from visible, large-scale construction to becoming the primary instrument for shaping norms and discourse. It will promote “Chinese characteristics” and political values while leading the reform of international organisations.
Guangyi Pan is a PhD candidate in International Politics at UNSW. His research fields include Asia-Pacific politics, realist theory, and Cold War History. His recent works have appeared in various journals, including International Affairs, Pacific Review, and Journal of Chinese Political Science. LinkedIn
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