Belt and Road: A Ten-Year Celebration and Reflection

In the following op-ed, Erik Solheim – President of the Green Belt and Road Institute and former UN Under-Secretary-General – reflects on the first decade of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Solheim observes that “China has signed more than 200 Belt and Road cooperation agreements with 152 countries and 32 international organizations”, accounting for three-quarters of the world’s population, and practically all developing countries. The BRI has “brought huge benefit to developing countries, lifting millions of people out of extreme poverty.” For that reason, the author considers that the BRI is, without doubt, “the most important international initiative that serves as a global cooperation platform to reshape global development.”

Solheim describes a number of BRI projects around the world which are aiding low-carbon development and connectivity. He cites the Mombasa-Nairobi Railway and the Addis Ababa – Djibouti Railway as “shining examples that have helped African connectivity and green transformation.”

The author introduces a series of interesting suggestions for further enhancing green development along the Belt and Road, and concludes by expressing his hope that the BRI’s second decade will be as successful as its first.

This piece was first published on CGTN on 19 September 2023.

In February this year, I had an exciting visit to Bracell in Brazil. It is the most modern and greenest pulp factory in the world, a few hours from the megacity of Sao Paulo. The operations are purely fuelled by renewable energy and forests are used in a sustainable way. It underlines the South-South cooperation in the new global era. Bracell operates fully in Brazil, producing 3 million metric tons of pulp a year and creating about 6,000 jobs for the Brazilians. The mother company is the Indonesian RGE, which set up this factory in Brazil as part of its global product schemes. China has a prominent role to play as well, since the project is funded by Chinese banks and its pulp will primarily supply the Chinese market for paper and tissue. From Brazil to Indonesia and China, Bracell showcases a new global development cooperation landscape, bringing together three of the most important developing nations in the new global economy.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS and the Belt and Road Initiative are among the new mechanisms to unlock the potential of such South-South cooperation. And there is no doubt that the Belt and Road is the most important international initiative that serves as a global cooperation platform to reshape global development. Since it was unveiled in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, it has progressed with robust vigor and vitality. This year marks the 10th anniversary and it is right on time to sum up what has been achieved and to look ahead.

Looking back, the first decade of the Belt and Road cooperation has been a resounding success. Its great achievements are generally three-fold.

First, the sheer scale. As of June, China signed more than 200 Belt and Road cooperation agreements with 152 countries and 32 international organizations. Together, they account for about 40% of the world’s economy and 75% of global population. With a handful of exceptions, all developing countries are part of the initiative. And in different countries, the Belt and Road takes on different forms. It is by far the most important investment venture of our time. It has brought huge benefit to developing countries, lifting millions of people out of extreme poverty.

Second, the great contribution of green corridors. The China-Laos Railway has delivered more than 4 million tons of cargo since it was put into operation in 2021, hugely helping landlocked Laos to link to global markets in China and Europe and increase cross-border tourism. Indonesia’s first high-speed train, the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway, reached 350 km per hour during the joint commissioning and test phase in June this year, reducing the journey between the two huge cities from over 3 hours to 40 minutes. The Mombasa-Nairobi Railway and the Addis Ababa – Djibouti Railway are shining examples that have helped African connectivity and green transformation. The green corridors have not only helped facilitate transportation and green mobility in developing countries, but also greatly boosted trade, the tourism industry and social development.

Third, the commitment to green development. In September 2021, President Xi Jinping announced the decision to halt all Chinese overseas coal investment. The move reflected a strong determination to advance green transition and has had a profound effect in driving other developing countries to a green path and high-quality development.  Interestingly it happened at a time when many Belt and Road countries like Kenya, Bangladesh and Pakistan also decided to abandon coal.

Looking ahead, China may need to consider new steps to further green the BRI to ensure its sustainability and continued progress.

First, it is important to designate the BRI as a major vehicle for green investments. China has taken a leading position in nearly all renewable technologies. BYD is now the biggest electric vehicle company in the world. LONGi is the world’s biggest solar enterprise. China Three Gorges Corporation is a global leader in hydropower development and operation. Envision ranks as one of the world’s largest wind turbine companies. CATL has led the way in battery making. These companies have huge interests in and abilities to invest overseas. BYD recently said that it will invest over 620 million US dollars in an industrial complex to make electric cars in Brazil and LONGi has massive investment in Malaysia to produce solar products.

Second, efforts can be made to optimize the green corridors. The Mombasa-Nairobi Railway can potentially connect East Africa all the way to Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, landlocked countries that have beautiful landscapes and are desperately longing to become attractive tourist destinations, as well as to be linked to ports and thus global markets. Similarly, the Jakarta-Bandung Railway could continue to reach Surabaya, the second-largest city of Indonesia, with fantastic landscapes and historical sights. I am glad to see that China and Indonesia have discussed this potential extension after Premier Li Qiang took a test ride on the bullet train recently. In addition, it is crucial to promote collaboration among countries involved in the Kunming-Singapore Railway Network to complete the project in an efficient manner, so that the countries can benefit from a most advanced transport system, boosting tourism and increasing economic integration. The Kunming-Singapore rail web will have a tremendous impact on the region’s connectivity and prosperity.

Third, the BRI should become a platform dedicated to exchanging investment and best practice for nature protection. President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in November last year. Saudi Arabia and Iran were invited this August to be new members of the BRICS. The Chinese support to peace has brought a very positive influence on the Middle East. There is huge space for cooperation between China and the Middle East on desert control and water management. The Ninth Kubuqi International Desert Forum opened last month in the city of Ordos, and lots of discussion emphasized that China’s best practice of desert control can be shared with the Middle East. By the same token, presidents of five Central Asian nations met with President Xi Jinping in Xi’an this May at the China-Central Asia Summit, which resulted in an inspiring declaration on environmental cooperation. China’s success in water management and protecting wild animals such as giant pandas, Tibetan antelopes and snow leopards shows the way for nature protection overseas.

Fourth, people-to-people bonds should be enhanced. One serious consequence of the COVID pandemic is the breakdown in the texture of global connectivity. Relationships and connections suffered an unprecedented challenge. The Belt and Road can play a significant role in creating a better global atmosphere and fighting stupid ideas of zero-sum and decoupling. The Belt and Road can serve as a forum to strengthen people-to-people exchanges, bridging cultural gaps and promoting understanding among peoples. I recently worked with Zhejiang Province to set up a tourist office in Europe, which will function as a window into the splendid Song Dynasty as well as the tea and silk culture of this historical province. The forthcoming Asian Games in Hangzhou is another example of bringing people together. Tea and sport are great catalysts to unite people from diverse regions and backgrounds.

The Belt and Road ten-year fruitful journey demonstrates that it is not about unreachable visionary or hollow dreams, but about determination and real action. It has met the inaccessible development hopes of many developing countries and has brought concrete benefits to people and communities. Let’s hope that, over the next decade, the Belt and Road will continue to be a major driver in global green development and bringing people together across continents.

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