The second Belt and Road Forum recently concluded on 27 April with 37 countries joining Chinese President Xi Jinping in signing a joint communique promising to work together as the global project prepares to initiate its next phase of development. This is a noticeable improvement in approval compared to the 29 nations that originally signed during the first forum in 2017.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is a cornerstone of President Xi’s administration and essentially seeks to revitalise the old Silk Road trade routes that linked Asia and Europe through a large-scale infrastructure project.
The project has come under fire from critics, the most vocal being the United States, for having unclear financing arrangements, environmental concerns and fears of unsustainable debt. This has led some to believe that the initiative is just a power play by China to spread its influence throughout the region via debt traps.
China has repeatedly dismissed these claims, stating that the project was conceived to benefit all as a whole and to boost trade between nations.
Xi went out of his way to emphasize that China has good intentions and are committed to transparency and building: “high-quality, sustainable, risk-resistant, reasonably priced, and inclusive infrastructure”, he said during his opening speech.
In March, Italy became the first Group of 7 country to sign up for the BRI, a big win for Beijing that also raised alarm bells in the region. In the meantime Switzerland’s President Ueli Maurer was among the signatories of the communique on Saturday.
While Xi made no mention of the ongoing trade war with the U.S. in his speech on Friday, a large part of it references the major issues in negotiations, such as cleaning up state subsidies, reducing non-tariff barriers, boosting imports and protecting intellectual property.
China won’t engage in currency devaluation that “harms others”, Xi said in the speech. Bloomberg News reported earlier that the U.S. was asking China to keep the value of the yuan stable to neutralise any effort to soften the blow of U.S. tariffs.
While Xi’s reassurances did little to assuage concerns from most of his critics, political support for the project remains relatively positive, especially from signees. Xi announced at a press conference that more than US$64 billion worth of deals had been signed over the three-day forum, but he gave no details or acknowledged who signed them.
“It’s clear that Xi sought to use this year’s Belt and Road Forum as a platform to pursue multiple objectives: to rebrand the Belt and Road and also to telegraph to the United States that he is prepared, rhetorically at least, to address American concerns that have led to the current trade confrontation”, said Daniel Kliman, a senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Centre for a New American Security.