China is gearing up to host its Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on May 14-15. The forum is intended to provide a platform for discussion on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, also known as ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR), an initiative that aims to improve global connectivity with large-scale investments in infrastructure projects. At the moment, these projects are focussed on developing both land and sea route connectivity along paths. Despite its ostensibly laudable goal, some countries have been reluctant to endorse OBOR for fear that it will only to advance Chinese interests (see here for an overview on some international perspectives on the OBOR initiative). As such, there are some noticeable absences from the upcoming forum in Beijing. Although the focus of the forum has been announced, there are questions over what, if any, results the forum could actually achieve. Nonetheless, in a press briefing, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that the forum will represent “the highest level of international conference held by China” since the project was announced in 2013, suggesting that there are high hopes for a successful forum, whatever that may entail. To begin to discern what indeed that may entail, who is attending the forum, what will attendees be focusing on, and what are some of the likely outcomes?


Who is attending?

G20 heads of state at the 2016 G20 summit in Hangzhou, China. The 2017 OBOR forum in Beijing is China’s next opportunity to showcase its international credentials. Only six G20 heads of state (from Argentina, Italy, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey, and China) are attending the forum.

As well as China, at least 28 heads of state (29 with Kyrgyzstan) expected to attend, the majority of whom are from either Asia or Europe. Other countries that are expected to send official, albeit lower-level, representatives include the UK, France, Germany, and Japan.

India will also be sending an official, albeit low-ranking, representative to the forum despite its reservations about the project. India – a country that has been identified as a key country in one of the six proposed land-based economic corridors (in the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor) – is concerned about the planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor development projects in the disputed territory of Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim.

Interestingly, only two African nations – Ethiopia and Kenya – are sending representatives to the forum. This is despite the potential for the OBOR Initiative to support projects to help meet African infrastructure needs. Justin Yifu Lin, former economist at the World Bank, argues that OBOR could bolster African economic growth through the transfer of China’s labour intensive industries to Africa. The positive input of China on African infrastructure, too, has been noted. The hesitation of many, it would seem, lies in the general concern that OBOR is not as win-win as China claims that it is.

The US has so far not indicated that it will be attending. This is unsurprising given the Trump administration’s distaste for multilateral agreements (see, for example, Trump’s position on NAFTA and the TPP). It limits the potential impact of the OBOR initiative due to the resources and influence that the US’s sizeable international development and foreign aid programs could contribute.

Aside from government representatives, Foreign Minister Wang, in the aforementioned press briefing, added that “officials, scholars, entrepreneurs and people from financial institutions and media from 110 countries, and 89 principals and representatives from 61 organizations” are also expected to attend, with over 1200 representatives expected in total. Undoubtedly there is a large base of support, yet this is diminished somewhat by the smaller attendance of official government representatives.

Notable attendees include UN Secretary General António Guterres, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde. These are all high-profile individuals from global organisations; their participation undoubtedly adds credibility and prestige to the event in spite of the absence of wide government representation from the international community.


What is the focus?

Workers install wires on a Golden Bridge of Silk Road structure on a platform outside the National Convention Center, the venue which will hold the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, in Beijing, April 18, 2017. (Image credit: Associated Press via Voice of America)

In his press briefing held on April 18th, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi identified the theme of the event as “strengthening international cooperation and co-building the ‘Belt and Road’ for win-win development”. Within this theme there are to be four outcomes that will be the focus of discussions.

Namely, participants will be encouraged to establish more consensus on the goals and principles of OBOR cooperation between participants; to identify the direction or areas of cooperation; to work towards the implementation of projects; and to strengthen and simplify policies and initiatives that will facilitate OBOR project implementation and success.

Again, although the forum is billed towards strengthening international cooperation and there are members of the international community expected to attend, there are some notable absences. India, as already mentioned, is not attending. Nor is the US, which has sizeable foreign aid and international development programs.


What are the likely outcomes?

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (centre) and Foreign Ministry officials outline the goals and expectations of the OBOR forum in a press briefing on April 18, 2017. (Image credit: Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China)

Even with these expected outcomes, some commentators, like George Magnus, have expressed scepticism that the forum or the Belt and Road Initiative will realise its lofty ambitions. Given that many projects labelled as under the auspices of OBOR predate the initiative, the likelihood of any ground-breaking proposals being announced is not high, especially without similar improvements in supporting architecture, such as legal and investment frameworks. In fairness to the upcoming forum, this is what its fourth outcome hopes to address.

Nonetheless, China, through the above press briefing with Wang Yi, announced it was expecting to sign cooperation documents “with nearly 20 countries and over 20 international organizations”, as well as nearly 20 action plans with their governmental counterparts. How far-reaching or substantive these agreements will be is, again, unknown, and results beyond announced agreements and a forum statement are unlikely to be readily apparent in the short-term.

Other analysts have described the forum as an opportunity for China to take the lead in the face of protectionist rhetoric emanating from the Trump administration, and at the same time limit the repercussions should the Trump administration follow through on its numerous threats to China, such as beginning a trade war. Trump has, however, discarded many of these policies already, so it is unlikely that something like a trade war would be pursued (see here for an overview of statements and policies made by the Trump administration concerning China).

Finally, Chinese state media has reiterated Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s assertion that the forum will be a “win-win” for global development. Xinhua News, for example, has published a commentary emphasising that benefits will accrue to China and especially others from the initiative. Even though phrases like ‘win-win’ have by now become hackneyed and trite from overuse, China’s constant reiteration of the benefits of the OBOR plan suggests that it is very keen to convince the rest of the world of its benign nature. Judging by the expected attendees of the forum, it has been somewhat successful on this front. The forum, then, will provide an opportunity for China to reassure attendees like India and sceptics like the US that OBOR is indeed mutually beneficial for win-win cooperation.

(Featured image credit: Daniel Hertzberg for The Boston Globe)



Justin Elliott is a Spring 2017 intern at The Carter Center China Program.