Xi Celebrates Belt and Road Initiative with Putin as the West Tunes Out

Chinese President Xi Jinping held a summit this week in Beijing touting his signature diplomatic initiative: the Belt and Road Initiative.

(Photo by Kremlin.ru under CC BY 4.0)

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With violence raging in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a summit this week in Beijing touting his signature diplomatic initiative, the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as a pathway toward global unity.

But all anyone wanted to talk about was one of the folks who turned up for the summit: Vladimir Putin.

Building Bridges

The BRI has primarily focused on large-scale infrastructure projects in developing nations, and Beijing sells it as a way to build international ties and prosperity. “When China does well, the world will do even better,” Xi said at the summit, according to Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.

But the West sees the BRI as a weapon — a shady tactic to expand China’s global influence while essentially laying massive debt on poorer nations. The go-to example is when China lent Sri Lanka money and assistance to build a massive port on its southern coast. In 2017, when the island nation couldn’t repay its debts, it ended up granting China a lease on the port and the 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years. Beijing continues to refute it’s practicing “debt trap diplomacy.”

Facing domestic economic headwinds and sanctions from every direction, China has been working on rebranding and restructuring the BRI:

  • In addition to targeting infrastructure, Beijing intends to add smaller, commercial projects like hospitals, technical schools that teach robotics, and e-commerce and digital finance platforms. It eventually wants to move into areas like art, media, and green tech.
  • China also is changing its BRI loan structure. With debts from developing nations piling up, Chinese lenders are issuing fewer loans to diversify the risk. For example, state-owned lenders Bank of China and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China partnered with foreign institutions and the World Bank in 2021 to loan $360 million to Iraq for a natural gas field, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Close, But Not Too Close: The highlight of the summit was Xi and Putin meeting. “Chairman Xi Jinping calls me his friend, and I call him my friend,” Putin told reporters, but the relationship isn’t quite a bro-mance. China doesn’t want Russia defeated in Ukraine, especially since 35% of its oil comes from Russia.