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China has invited international leaders to weigh in on shaping the future design of its Belt and Road Initiative at a summit in Beijing. European governments are curious to find out if China is truly willing to multilateralize and institutionalize its flagship foreign policy Project.

The first international container train travelling from Jinhua city in the eastern province of Zhejiang to Kazakhstan in January 2016.

When China hosted the G20 summit in Hangzhou in 2016, an article in The Guardian hailed the event as “a new phase in the nation’s global economic confidence and leadership.” There is no question that G20 was a big milestone for China, but a much more obscure event – at least for a Western audience – might end up being more pivotal for China’s ability to lead globally.

The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, to be held in Beijing on May 14 and 15, will revolve around China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its flagship foreign policy initiative. BRI is China’s from scratch attempt at building a cross-regional integration project, driven by financing the construction of new highways, railways, ports, power grids and other infrastructure to better connect China to South and Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. While it has been difficult to keep track of the specifics, more than 65 countries are BRI “partner countries” and about 926 billion USD in investments have been announced.

China has to convince the skeptics

In light of these figures, BRI has attracted greater scrutiny lately, specifically in the U.S. and Europe. China has to convince skeptical observers that it won’t just throw money at often economically dubious infrastructure projects for its own strategic gain, regardless of transparency and governance standards. Also, Beijing is facing accusations that it does too little to factor in the interests of countries along the Belt and Road corridor.

If China plays its hand right, inviting the world to a conference could turn out to be a smart move. The Belt and Road Forum could dispel concerns by giving others within the scope of the project a chance to weigh in on it. The stated goal of the conference is to discuss the future trajectory of BRI and to adopt a communiqué setting out joint priorities and principles of cooperation. However, in preparing a working draft of the communiqué in the run up to the conference, Beijing has apparently given rather little consideration to input from other BRI countries, and it remains to be seen how much stakeholder input can be integrated over the course of the two-day event.

Building upon Xi’s speech in Davos

The Belt and Road Forum also gives China a chance to build upon President Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in which he presented China as a guardian of the liberal global economic order. Just like the Davos speech, the international forum is yet another chance to brand Beijing as a political and economic antipode to Washington, as the U.S. administration under Donald Trump focuses inwards and retreats from economic cooperation in Eurasia and worldwide.

Given the cross-regional nature of BRI, the meeting in Beijing also makes for an interesting political experiment outside traditional alignments and alliances. The eclectic guest list of 28 heads of state and government includes the presidents of Russia and Turkey, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, alongside the prime ministers of Spain, Italy and Poland. Other EU member states will send senior government officials such as Germany’s Economics Minister Brigitte Zypries.

Three conceivable summit outcomes

Although is not clear from the outside what the Chinese leadership envisages as concrete outcomes for the summit, but three are conceivable:

  • The introduction of complementary “soft power” elements, such as a Belt and Road education fund or cultural exchange program, appears likely, as Beijing has recently presented a scheme for mutual recognition of academic degrees by 48 countries along the Belt and Road.  
  • China might make a few high-profile BRI-related project funding promises, although Beijing’s enthusiasm for outbound investments has cooled down in recent months.
  • A Chinese invitation to all BRI countries to make steps towards a multiregional FTA would be a very bold (and not necessarily likely) move that would open up a new page in Chinese free trade endeavors.

Apart from that, the event will check all the boxes of traditional international summitry. We can expect the announcements of cooperation agreements and commercial deals. Even representatives of civil society and industry will be present at the meeting. Also, the Belt and Road Forum was preceded by a Silk Road security conference (in which Spain among others took part), underlining that BRI has a strong security dimension in addition to its obvious economic focus.

It is not at all clear whether China will live up to its promise of allowing participating stakeholders to have a greater say over the trajectory of BRI, but the G20 experience shows that China is willing to take on feedback in a multilateral setting. The BRI Forum could thus become the steppingstone towards the greater institutionalization of the initiative that especially Western countries might hope for. (See previous blogpost “Germany wants Europe to help shape China’s Belt and Road Initiative.”) At the same time, it could become another important marker of a shift towards a global order that is increasingly influenced by China.