China’s Belt and Road Forum: What you need to know after the Beijing ‘grand rally’

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A two-day global gathering billed as China “The most important diplomatic event” of the year ended Wednesday in the Chinese capital, with Beijing touting its outsized role in global development – ​​and its alternative vision to that of the United States.

Two dozen leaders and more than a hundred delegations, largely from the South, gathered for a packed schedule of forums and bilateral meetings around the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) signed by the leader Chinese Xi Jinping – the global infrastructure project that cemented China’s rise. position as a major international player since its launch ten years ago.

The gathering – at which Vladimir Putin was the guest of honor – also provided a window into Xi’s vision of a world devoid of the norms and values ​​promoted by liberal democracies, which shunned the Russian leader after his mandate. brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Also looming over the event is the war in the Middle East, where the fight between Israel and Hamas militants threatens to drag the region into a broader conflict in which China, Russia and the United States all reportedly have a stake. .

Here are the key takeaways from the China Belt and Road Forum.

The meeting left no doubt as to who was the most important world leader present in the eyes of China’s Xi.

At a lavish welcome banquet at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Tuesday, the golden doors opened to reveal Xi and Putin entering the hall side by side, followed by other leaders and their wives.

Putin was the first among a handful of visiting leaders to deliver a speech at the forum’s opening ceremony on Wednesday. There, and during three hours of bilateral meetings with Xi later in the day, the Russian leader emphasized his close alignment with China.

The two countries shared “common threats”, which strengthened “Russian-Chinese interaction”, Putin told reporters before leaving Beijing, after saying he and Xi had discussed “in detail” the “situation” at Middle East and Ukraine.

China and Russia have both publicly called for a ceasefire in the growing crisis in Gaza and neither has explicitly condemned Hamas for its attack on Israel that sparked the conflict – in stark contrast to the outpouring of support for Israel from leaders across Europe and the United States. .

The meeting of Russian and Chinese leaders in Beijing coincided with the arrival of US President Joe Biden in Israel, in a strong show of support for the country and US diplomatic muscle to accelerate humanitarian aid.

During his meeting with Putin, Xi hailed the China-Russia partnership as “a long-term commitment,” emphasizing “enduring good neighborliness and mutually beneficial cooperation,” and referring to their 4,300-kilometer shared border and their mutual goals. Both see the other as an essential partner in pushing back against what they perceive to be a US-led world order that is unfavorable to them.

Xi’s show of solidarity with Putin at the Belt and Road Forum also highlighted the growing division among the world’s major powers.

The event was attended by 24 leaders – far fewer than the 37 who attended the previous BRI forum four years ago.

Among the main dignitaries who died were those from European countries. In 2019, Giuseppe Conte, then Prime Minister of Italy, attended, as did the leaders of Greece, Austria, Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Since then, skepticism about China’s global ambitions has grown in Europe, particularly over Beijing’s economic and diplomatic support for Moscow. Italy, the only G7 member to join the BRI, plans to withdraw from the project when its membership expires next year.

Among the leaders present were Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and others from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Taliban – which is not widely recognized like the Afghan government – ​​also sent a delegation.

In their speeches, many leaders told the forum of their hope of spurring much-needed sustainable development in their countries, while some also called for a more multilateral and cooperative world.

Although he did not mention the United States by name, Xi was clearly critical of what Beijing sees as U.S. efforts to stay on top and stifle China’s rise.

“Considering the development of others as a threat or taking economic interdependence as a risk will not improve one’s life or accelerate its development,” he warned in his opening speech.

Middle East war casts shadow over global relations

The war in the Middle East weighed on the rally, which began with news of a devastating explosion at a Gaza hospital that likely killed hundreds of displaced Palestinians sheltering from Israeli airstrikes.

But the situation was largely absent from the forum. None of the national leaders who spoke at the opening ceremony discussed the conflict.

However, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he could not ignore the situation during his opening speech, in which he demanded an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

Palestinian grievances after five decades of occupation, serious as they are, “cannot justify the acts of terror against civilians committed by Hamas on October 7 (which) I immediately condemned,” Guterres said. “But these events cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people. »

THURSDAY, Xi made his first public statement on the conflict since Hamas launched its attack on October 7.

In a meeting with Egypt’s representative at the forum, the Chinese leader called for a ceasefire and an end to the war “as soon as possible,” while supporting a two-state solution that would establish a state independent Palestinian.

Xi also said China was ready to strengthen coordination with Egypt and other Arab countries to “promote an early, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Palestinian issue,” according to a statement by state broadcaster CCTV. China has not yet named Hamas in its statements.

Beijing announced on Sunday that it would send its special Middle East envoy Zhai Jun to the region in the coming days.

The forum also highlighted the next chapter of the Belt and Road Initiative, which enters its second decade as China’s economic growth slows and borrowing costs rise around the world.

The program, which Beijing says has mobilized up to $1 trillion in funding, has played a substantial role in helping developing countries build roads, bridges, ports and railways – but has been accused of putting too many countries in debt and having negative environmental impacts. .

Chinese officials welcomed what they billed as efforts to move the initiative into a new phase of “high-quality” development, and focused in separate forums on the digital economy and how to promote sustainable “green development”.

Questions have also been raised about whether China would continue to liberally finance large infrastructure projects, as data also shows a significant decline in this type of financing in recent years.

But asked at a closing press conference about infrastructure funding programs proposed by other nations Like the United States in recent years, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared to suggest that Beijing would continue to claim this space.

“Obviously, competition should not mean working against each other but rather improving each other,” he said, while touting China’s number of comprehensive development projects.

“Why not look at the international record, to see who can build more roads, railways and bridges for developing countries, and who can build more schools, hospitals and stadiums for people in developing countries? developing,” he said. said.

“We have the confidence and the ability. »

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