Leaders from participating countries worldwide recently gathered in Beijing for the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation hosted by the Chinese government. The two-day meeting began on October 17. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the announcement of President Xi Jinping's hallmark "One Belt, One Road Initiative" (BRI).
From the outset, the Chinese government was committed to making the summit a "historic event." It set out to mobilize all its diplomatic and propaganda clout.
However, as it unfolded, the event only served to highlight the decline of the One Belt, One Road initiative, the great project of the century in the eyes of the Chinese leadership. That became abundantly evident in a tally of the number of heads of state and governments who attended this third summit.
Comparing Earlier Summits
The first BRI summit was held in Beijing in May 2017. It was attended by heads of state or government from 29 countries besides China. The number of heads of state or government who came together for the second BRI summit in April 2019 rose to 38.
However, in 2023, the Chinese refrained from announcing the number of national leaders who showed up in Beijing. In fact, they did not even issue an official list of those in attendance. We can only make estimates based on reports related to summit meetings between foreign leaders and President Xi in Beijing around that time and other information.
It appears that leaders from approximately 23 countries aside from China were present at the conference. That number would be less than for attendance at the first BRI summit. And it is only about 60 percent of that for the second summit four years ago.
At the second summit, President Xi presided over a grand roundtable meeting attended by all heads of state or government. Then they issued a joint declaration at the end of the summit.
This time, however, no roundtable meeting was held and no joint statement was released.
A Lonely Celebration
It was President Xi himself who delivered a major speech at the opening ceremony held on October 18. In it, he praised himself as the prime architect of the One Belt, One Road initiative.
In the end, the so-called "summit," as this international conference was billed, seemed to be little more than a stage for Xi to strut about on. Overall, the conference proved to be a dull and uninspiring affair.
It was particularly noteworthy that many important European and Asian countries did not attend this year's summit. That includes countries whose heads of state or government attended the first and second summits.
The president of the Philippines, the prime minister of Malaysia, the president of the Swiss Federation, the prime minister of Italy, the prime minister of Spain, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, the prime minister of Greece, the prime minister of Poland, and others attended the 2017 summit. Nonetheless, the leaders of those eight countries were absent from the 2023 summit.
Southeast Asian Absences
The second summit was attended by the president of Portugal and the prime minister of Singapore, in addition to the eight national leaders mentioned above who participated in the first summit. However, the leaders of those two countries did not make the trip to Beijing for the 2023 summit.
In other words, major Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well as European and EU countries such as Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, and the Czech Republic were all absent from this summit.
In a nutshell, almost all the European countries that had associated themselves with the BRI have turned their backs on the project. Meanwhile, some Southeast Asian countries have also begun to disengage.
Hints of Economic Woes
The BRI is also flagging in terms of actual results achieved. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or AIIB, is the Chinese state-run bank that serves a core role in the project. As of May 2023, the cumulative total of investments and loans made since that institution began operations in January 2016 had reached $41.2 billion USD (approximately ￥5.7 trillion JPY). That is only about half of what was initially expected.
In addition, as the October 19 edition of The Sankei Shimbun reported, loans from China to developing countries have declined significantly since reaching a record high in 2018. They had fallen to about $15 billion USD in 2021 (￥2.25 trillion JPY), or only about 40 percent of their peak level.
These indicators clearly show that the BRI has already entered a period of decline.
Isn't that to be expected? BRI is a massive project that has been promoted with the aim of establishing China's economic hegemony and setting the stage for President Xi to play the role of "great world leader." It is only natural that it should end in failure.
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(Access to the article in Japanese.)
Author: Seki Hei