On Jan 7, a note appeared on an obscure website for exhibition-related information saying that the National Conference Center in Beijing would clear its schedule for the entire April. Events that had booked the Center for April dates would have to give way to a major one associated with “the Party and Nation’s economic and diplomatic strategy.” The 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (hereafter “Belt and Road Summit”) is finally coming.
Dubbed the most important “home-field diplomatic event” of the year, the Belt and Road Summit has sucked up much oxygen from China’s diplomatic and propaganda space as soon as clock started ticking for 2019.
On Mar 8, at a press conference held during the annual National People’s Congress sessions, Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted three features of the Summit: higher level (more heads of state compared to the first one); bigger crowd (thousands of participants from 100 countries) and more activities (12 sub-forums and a gathering for entrepreneurs).
While the Summit will certainly be presented as a huge success domestically, the world would probably judge it with a difference set of standards. The information that is available so far can provide some guidance as to what to expect from the Summit.
As Wang Yi’s press conference has shown, the number of leaders attending is a key indicator of the global political support the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has garnered and will be keenly watched by observers around the world.
29 heads of state (and heads of government), not including President Xi himself, attended the 1st Belt and Road Summit in 2017. This year’s Summit will very likely beat that record given the fact that in the 2 years since 2017, more countries have signed up to the BRI. At the time when the 1st Summit was held, 39 countries or international organizations were on board. According to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), now 123 have formally reached understanding with China with regard to their involvement in the BRI. A portion, if not all, of the new sign-ups will certainly translate into head-of-state participation in the Summit.
But quantity is one thing, some guests are more equal than others. For a BRI that has been dogged by negative media coverage internationally on its setbacks and a “hidden agenda”, high-level participation by certain countries has the narrative busting effect that would define how the Summit is viewed from outside.
Based on existing Chinese language media reports, the leaders who have confirmed attendance include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov. While these “old friends of China” can be seen as usual suspects and do not change the dynamics of the Summit, other participants are more interesting. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, for example, has accepted the invitation despite his rollback of China invested pipeline projects. The Prime Minister’s renegotiation of Belt and Road deals that his predecessor had reached with China was widely interpreted as an indictment of BRI as pushing unsustainable debt burdens onto other developing countries. His presence at the Summit will help assuage some of the concerns that Malaysia is backing out of the BRI.
Another interesting guest is Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose government’s recent decision to formally endorse the BRI with an MOU drew pressure from Germany and the United States for undermining a Western united front, particularly the G7 group. Italy was reportedly frustrated with the EU’s inaction about its trade deficit with China.
It is worth noting, however, that both Mahathir and Conte’s predecessors were represented in the first Belt and Road Summit 2 years ago. Their appearance this time help to consolidate the BRI’s reception by their respective countries. But at this time of increasing global questioning of the BRI, particularly from the US, what China needs more is probably a breakthrough that resembles Britain’s surprising signing-up to the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015. But a polarized us-versus-them atmosphere around on the initiative would make such a breakthrough extremely challenging.
An evolving agenda
Beyond the political symbolism, what the Belt and Road Summit can actually achieve is another question that observers will be asking. For example, Will Mahathir use the occasion to determine the fate of the controversial East Coast Rail Link project that has been hanging in balance ever since his election?
China has its own criteria to gauge success. Dialing back to 2017, the first Belt and Road Summit produced two key documents, a Leaders’ Joint Communique and a List of Outcomes that contains 5 categories, 76 items and 279 action points. NDRC has apparently been tracking the completion of those action points. By Jan 22, 2019, 96.4% of them had either been completed or incorporated into the routine workstreams of the Chinese government.
The List of Outcomes provides a framework of understanding how the Summit’s substance is conceived and organized. The five categories (strategic and policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, investment & trade expansion, finance cooperation, and people to people connection) correspond to the “5 Pillars” of the BRI. And the 76 items help translate those grand ideas into concrete, measurable steps:
Reuters recently got hold of a draft of the MOU that is being negotiated between China and Italy, which illustrates with a concrete example how “strategic and policy coordination” is being formalized at bilateral level. The draft is notably broad stroke but gives a prominent nod to sustainability, Paris Climate Accord and environmental cooperation, invoking an image of “high quality Belt and Road” that Beijing has been touting. While the basic framework of the MOU follows the 5 categories above, Environmental Cooperation is remarkably given a standalone place in the document, no longer a part of the “people to people connection.” The green message is more salient when compared to earlier MOUs China signed with other countries. A 2015 MOU with Poland, for example, was much more rigidly modelled on the “5 Pillars” with a heavy emphasis on infrastructure/investment and no sustainability component.
Some recipient countries have also been pushing to redefine BRI on their own terms. Indonesia, for one, recently laid out four conditions for its BRI projects, which include use of environmentally friendly technology, maximize hiring of local labor, technology transfer and added value for local industry. It is a sign that countries are maturing in their approach to BRI by voicing their own demands and conditions, which may find their way into the BRI agenda reshaped by bilateral and multilateral interactions.
Minister Wang Yi’s press conference also indicates that this year’s Summit might run with an “evolved agenda” by going beyond the original “5 Pillars” and providing more air space for topics that were grouped together before. At the first Summit, 6 parallel sessions corresponding to the 5 Pillars plus one on think tank collaboration were organized. This year, besides the main forum and the Leaders Roundtable which Xi will preside over, 12 sub-forums plus one entrepreneurs convention will also be offered. Information from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment seems to suggest that an ecological sub-forum is definitely being planned. Other topics of sub-forum might emerge in the coming weeks. The general trend appears to be for the Summit to go more granular on issue topic discussions.
Green Belt and Road?
The general elevation of green issues in official rhetoric, MOUs and forum agenda begs the question if any concrete outcomes on the green governance of the BRI will come out of the 2nd Summit.
At the beginning of this year, Minister of Ecology and Environment Li Ganjie announced that the International Coalition for Green Development on the Belt and Road (hereafter “Coalition”) would be formally launched in 2019. The Belt and Road Summit will be an ideal occasion to do that. The Coalition has been at the center of a controversy involving the United Nations Environment Program (in particular its former head Erik Solheim who was forced to resign for violating UN codes of conduct), the United States and China. The UN agency was questioned for its appeared coziness with the strategic initiative of a single member state. Whether China will successfully rollout the Coalition despite the setback is worth watching at the coming Summit. According to Solheim’s vision for the Coalition, which he laid out just before his departure, it should take up the roles of promoting green finance, creating basic principles and standards, and bringing in third parties to help countries along the Belt and Road achieve green development.
It is unclear at this moment whether specific environmental issues will be given a spot in the agenda. For example, China’s involvement in fossil fuel projects along the Belt and Road has received much global spotlight lately. Any institutional development under the BRI on climate change beyond a rhetoric nod will be significant progress toward harmonizing the initiative with the Paris Climate Accord. We have seen some concrete developments on the issue of desertification, where Chinese institutions have mobilized finance, technology and civil society support for afforestation projects along the Belt and Road. The Belt and Road Summit can benefit from an articulation of China’s commitment to “ecological civilization” in the implementation of the BRI.