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With 125 countries signed up at the 2019 forum, experts say China’s BRI is next to UN general Assembly

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The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) gained more confidence of the world leaders, as reported, that more than three dozen of Heads of the States were among a little over 5000 attendees of the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) from 150 countries. After the UN General Assembly session, the BRF could be termed as the second largely represented forum on a single agenda ‘connectivity and cooperation’.

The three-day BRF in Beijing on the last weekend of April concluded with another historic milestone for China adding US$ 64 billion memoranda of understanding signed at the CEO conference for the connectivity and cooperation projects.

President Xi Jinping told the media that a total of 283 items of practical outcomes were achieved during the BRF. Participants of the forum agreed the BRF is an important platform for multilateral cooperation and should be held on a regular basis.

President Xi also called for joint efforts of all parties to promote high-quality development of the Belt and Road at the leaders’ roundtable meeting of the forum. A day before, he announced a package of proposals to advance high-quality development.

While every other country is valuing the BRF as a forum to share the development vision, the U.S. and India were among the countries that didn’t send official representatives to this year’s forum, while Russian President Vladimir Putin attended.

Launched in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative is widely seen as China’s effort to increase its global influence. Despite all the odds and suspicions created against the BRI it has attracted fairly large number of countries. Over the last six years, since the inception of BRI, as many as 125 countries have signed up. Some more are likely to be part of it.

Critics say that through the massive infrastructure project, China forces developing nations to take on high debt burdens. President Xi, however, has allayed debt concerns, while analysts say the project’s success requires foresight and honesty from all sides. If the infrastructure built up with the borrowed money is not used optimally then the debt could pile up. Only those nations would benefit from the BRI that have some solid business and international trade plans and vigorous economic strategy.

The Asia Times journalist Pepe Escobar writes: “Relentless reports that the New Silk Roads, or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), are a perfidious neo-imperial debt trap set up by Yellow Peril 2.0 are vastly exaggerated.”

The Aljazeera analyst Alfred Romann states: Ramped-up efforts to rebrand China’s mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) were in full swing this week as the country hosted a giant forum and President Xi Jinping touted the benefits of multinational cooperation and sustainable infrastructure while pointing to efforts to address concerns.

The size and breadth of The Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, which covered everything from environmental policy to corruption and China’s lending practices, underscored the effort China is putting on recreating the image of the BRI.

Beyond the hundreds of meetings and the agreements signed, photo-ops with three dozen heads of state, and promises of both private and public investment into infrastructure and trade, Xi took pains to underscore China’s good intentions and commitment to transparency and building “high-quality, sustainable, risk-resistant, reasonably priced, and inclusive infrastructure”, as he said during his keynote speech on the opening day of the forum.

The experts closely monitoring the China’s mammoth initiative believe that the new BRI concept is a little different and improved version of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) with some readjustments.

“Zero corruption, green, multilateral, quality, sustainability are the new glossary terms of the Chinese president,” said Bruno S Sergi, an instructor on the economics of emerging markets and the political economy of Russia and China at Harvard University and an associate at the Harvard Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

No doubt these new terms point in the right direction. The BRI believers have the hope that the new glossary terms would not prove to be only the buzz words for the marketing effort. The forum has a little explanation of the mechanisms how the newly touted concepts would be translated into real meanings to make the BRI humanely and ecological sustainability. Otherwise, it would become counter-productively with all its ills.

For example, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has raised many questions on its financial and strategic transparency, sustainability and ecological cost. The native economists believe that it would add more financial burden to already debt trapped Pakistan.

Despite increasing acceptance for BRI some countries have reservations too. Malaysia has cancelled some BRI projects linked to widespread corruption. Turkey skipped the forum citing fears of debt-trap diplomacy. In Montenegro, BRI financing has drastically expanded national debt.

Italy has joined the initiative in March while many more EU countries are likely to sign up for the BRI ignoring the US lobby’s hue and cry against BRI. So now we have 12 EU member states plus five Balkan nations committed to the BRI and wider business deals with Beijing. The Europeans exhort China to implement a real “level playing field,” and everyone enthusiastically supports the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement, which Brussels and Beijing had already pledged to sign before the end of 2020.

France and Germany are already talking about to form EU army to replace NATO. The main reason is cited the US administration’s unilateralism that is proving unwise for the individual countries and also for the collective benefits. Many other financial and strategic phenomenon are proving gradual decline in the US influence globally.

About $90 billion have been invested in multiple BRI-related projects that shows gradual acceptance of China’s philosophy of economic cooperation and connectivity. China’s total investment in the BRI projects is likely to rise up to several hundred billion dollars that China has loosely committed to.

President Xi has reiterated at the second BRF to address the concerns by committing to ensuring both environmental and financial sustainability in projects and investments. Linking the BRI to connectivity and cooperation, President Xi also assured to address the “challenges and risks confronting mankind”, global economic growth, international trade and investment, governance, multilateralism, green development and innovation.

He committed to inviting 10,000 representatives of “political parties, think-tanks and non-governmental organisations”, expand market access, enhance intellectual property protection, boost imports, engage in macro-economic policy coordination, and greater opening up.

It is too early to determine the exact benefits of the BRI what China is struggling for and putting its efforts in and giving commitments because the initiative is quite huge.

President Putin left nothing to doubt when he proudly proclaimed that Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union regional integration organization that it leads are strategically merging with China and its Belt & Road Initiative, with this process having unprecedentedly far-reaching strategic consequences for the supercontinent and 21st-century geopolitics as a whole.

Pakistan was one of those countries who endorsed the initiative at its initial stage. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the culmination of the trust that both countries have on each other. Both countries have signed the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) at the BRI. Let’s watch and see who will benefit more from it while we see all local markets have already been saturated with the Chinese products of all sorts.

The writer is an Islamabad-based policy advocacy, strategic communication and outreach expert

Published by HT Digital Content Services with permission from Daily Times.

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