The second Belt and Road Forum (BRF) was recently held in Beijing. This is the second time the forum took stock and set the pathways for future endeavours of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since this major initiative was launched in 2013.
In his address to the forum, President Xi Jinping also set new guidelines for the BRI to proceed in the coming years. He laid a lot of emphasis on the progress of BRI for the common good of humanity. In his words: “The flow of goods, capital, technology and people can provide strong impetus and broad space for economic growth. As the Chinese saying goes, ‘The ceaseless flow of rivers makes the oceans deep.’ However, were such inflow to be cut, the ocean, however big, would eventually dry up.”
In his speech, the Chinese president also touched upon some areas where BRI has to take special care and note. Specifically, all BRI projects in the future will have to adhere to strict international standards in quality. Projects will also have to be clean and green. There will be zero tolerance for any misappropriation or corruption in BRI projects. Special care has to be taken so that all project planning meets the environmental standards and no damage is done in the construction process to the environment.
Issues of the so-called “debt trap” also came up for discussion. It was pointed out that both lending and borrowing countries have to be more responsible for debt management and borrowing should only be done with capacity of repayment in mind. The five key areas of focus of BRI were also emphasised upon during the forum: policy coordination, connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people contact. It was pointed out that for the successful implementation of BRI, all these five areas of focus must receive the highest attention.
A number of sideline events also took place during the forum touching upon specific aspects of the initiative: there was a CEOs’ forum on joint investment and business opportunities; a Belt and Road News Network meeting; a Belt and Road Studies Network meeting comprising of major think tanks in BRI countries, to name a few. A number of new initiatives were also launched to support the BRI—notable amongst them are the Beijing Initiative for Clean Silk Road, Belt and Road Energy Partnership, Belt and Road Initiative Tax Administration Cooperation Mechanism. The International Silk Road Academy of Science was also launched along with the Alliance of International Science Organizations in the Belt and Road Region. The Belt and Road News Network will be a platform for cooperation amongst major news outlets and media houses in BRI countries. Similarly, the newly launched Belt and Road Studies Network will be a platform to bring together major think tanks in BRI countries to carry out research studies on different aspects of the initiative and provide policy inputs.
A special emphasis was also put on creating the Digital Silk Road Initiative. It was well understood that in this age of digital revolution, physical infrastructure alone cannot bring prosperity to people. There is thus the need for creating an effective digital infrastructure connecting all countries in BRI. It is well-known that BRI is a people-centric project. Therefore, people-to-people interaction amongst BRI countries is of utmost importance. People’s connectivity in the BRI region through exchanges and expansion of tourism is of significance. China will also support 5,000 people from the innovation centres in BRI countries through conducting exchanges, training programmes and joint research over the next five years. Another 10,000 representatives of political parties, think tanks, non-government organisations from countries participating in BRI will be invited to China for exchanges in the next five years. To sum it up, the BRF shed light on the new pathways for progress of the BRI in the next few years.
Bangladesh is a signatory country of BRI. It is also a key strategic partner of the initiative. Of the six economic corridors upon which the concept of BRI is built, one corridor will pass through Bangladesh. The old Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor is now to become the BRI corridor linking Kunming to Kolkata. There are only two corridors of the six corridors which are identified as maritime corridors and the old BCIM corridor is one of them. It will start at Kunming in China, pass through Myanmar and Bangladesh, and end up in Kolkata, India. Recently, a bilateral contract has been signed between China and Myanmar known as China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).
Bangladesh is going to start implementing other BRI projects very shortly. During the visit of President Xi Jinping in Bangladesh in 2016, a USD 40 billion package was pledged and necessary MOUs signed, of which USD 26 billion is meant for infrastructural development under BRI. Bangladesh stands to benefit enormously when these projects are completed; we will be linked by land through the corridor to the Chinese mainland which will then lead to connectivity through the other corridors to the rest of the world.
However, managing such massive infrastructural investment and development is not always easy. We will need to develop our policy and management capacities to reap the benefits of this initiative. In identifying the projects, we must give priority to our national needs and objectives. Being a climate-change-affected country, we will have to be extra cautious and sensitive in maintaining the highest environmental standards in all these projects. The so-called debt trap should also warn us that we have to be responsible and cautious in taking debts and managing them well. Transparency and accountability should be maintained in the planning and execution of these large projects. Project completion maintaining the highest degree of quality and international standards is of utmost importance. Going by our past record and experience, this is quite a tall order but given the size and importance of the projects, we cannot afford to compromise on any account.
BRI is a comprehensive undertaking that can transform our development endeavours and also support us in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. We will need to have a coordinated policy approach in three policy domains: trade, finance and investment (TFI). Only then can we better streamline the efforts to a win-win outcome.
Any mega project of this scale will also have geopolitical and geostrategic implications. We must therefore also carefully analyse these aspects as we move towards implementation of BRI.
In his speech at the forum, President Xi Jinping said: “Joint development of the Belt and Road Initiative embraces the historical trend of economic globalisations, responds to the call for global governance system reform and conforms to the strong desire of people of all countries to live better lives.”
Indeed, development and improving people’s lives should be our goal.
Major General ANM Muniruzzaman ndc, psc (retd) is the president of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS), an independent think tank. He attended the second Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in Beijing. BIPSS is a member of Belt and Road Studies Network (BRSN).