China Celebrates 10th Anniversary of Belt and Road Initiative with Emphasis on Soft Approach
In a grand commemoration of the 10th anniversary of its ambitious Belt and Road initiative, China signaled a shift toward a more nuanced and cooperative strategy. President Xi Jinping, addressing the 3rd high-level forum on international cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative, emphasized the importance of transitioning from a "hard" infrastructure focus to a "soft" approach rooted in principles such as mutual consultations, joint construction, sharing, openness, environmental sustainability, integrity, high standards, human welfare, and sustainable development.
Over the past decade, the Belt and Road initiative has evolved from a conceptual framework into a robust platform for international cooperation and development. The geographical scope of the initiative has expanded considerably, extending from Eurasia to encompass Africa and Latin America. More than 150 countries and over 30 international organizations have signed cooperation agreements to engage in joint construction efforts under the Belt and Road.
This shift has seen a transition from mere project outlines to comprehensive implementation, with a myriad of initiatives and programs aimed at improving the livelihoods of the populations involved.
It all began in 2013 when President Xi unveiled the idea of expanding cooperation between China and Central Asia, known as the "Silk Road Economic Belt." Initially focused on overland routes reminiscent of the historic Silk Road, the initiative later expanded to include sea routes and discussions of an "Ice Silk Road," leveraging the Northern Sea Route for expedited cargo delivery between East Asia and European ports.
The Belt and Road initiative, often referred to as the New Silk Road, encompasses projects spanning transportation, logistics, trade, and more, forming a framework for international economic cooperation based on common interests rather than strict integration. Xi Jinping's vision for a significant foreign policy project echoes past Chinese leaders' desires to push initiatives that promote national interests. Jiang Zemin championed the global expansion of Chinese corporations, while Hu Jintao emphasized China's peaceful rise.
Xi Jinping's "coupled strategies" system, introduced a decade ago, allows participating nations to contribute their unique visions and plans within the framework of the initiative. As an export-oriented industrial hub with much of its domestic infrastructure already in place, China aims to export its capacities abroad and ensure their utilization. The Belt and Road infrastructure facilities serve to transport Chinese goods to emerging markets and facilitate the export of natural resources from other countries to China, creating mutually beneficial business solutions and fostering economic growth in participating countries.
Beyond trade, the Belt and Road Initiative encompasses the development of logistics chains and transport corridors, including roads and railways. These projects have had a transformative impact on countries in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Russia, enhancing their transport and general infrastructure, and positioning them as crucial links between Europe and Asia.
Nevertheless, Western politicians and experts have often expressed skepticism about the Belt and Road initiative, characterizing it as a means for China to expand its influence. Both the United States and the European Union have accused China of employing a strategy that ensnares developing countries in debt, making them overly reliant on Beijing.
While the initiative faces challenges, including the ongoing global economic crisis and infrastructure development issues in participating countries like Iran, Russia, and several Central Asian nations, it holds substantial promise. The growth rates of cargo transportation along the Middle Corridor, a pivotal component of the Belt and Road, illustrate this potential. In 2021, container traffic along this corridor increased by 52% compared to the previous year, with 2022 witnessing a 2.5-fold growth over 2021, totaling 1.5 million tons. The volume of cargo transportation in the first half of 2023 has already reached 1.3 million tons, with expectations of a further 2.5 million-ton increase by year-end. In the medium term, cargo transportation along the Middle Corridor is projected to rise to 10 million tons annually.
Furthermore, there have been significant improvements in reducing cargo transportation duration. According to the Ministry of Industry of Kazakhstan, the initial transit time of goods along the corridor was 53 days. Presently, goods traverse this route in a much shorter period, ranging from 18 to 23 days, reflecting the initiative's commitment to enhancing efficiency and connectivity.
This indicates that the Belt and Road initiative continues to develop and form the global economic space. Despite the remaining challenges, the initiative's achievements and growth potential underline its importance in the modern geopolitical and economic environment.