China’s Belt and Road Initiative can help the world’s economy to recover in the post-Covid-19 era, but governments and businesses must work together and value multilateral collaboration, according to panellists at a webinar on rebooting Beijing’s ambitious trade strategy.
The panellists – three experts on international relations and investment – also said that while US-China tensions could be the biggest stumbling block in boosting the initiative, it would still be successful as there was much interest in regions such as Southeast Asia, Europe and even among American investors.
Launched in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative is the Chinese government’s strategy to encourage trade and infrastructural investment in countries in Asia, Africa and Europe.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
But with US-China relations rapidly deteriorating in recent years, and with Washington seeking to team up with its European allies to counter China’s rise as a technological power, critics were sceptical whether the trade initiative would still work.
Professor Zhai Kun, from Peking University’s School of International Studies, said challenges from the United States could be the biggest hurdle as Beijing continued to promote the initiative.
“Before the epidemic, the US believed that the BRI was a challenge [against them]. Right now you can see the strong competition between China and the US,” he said at the webinar organised by the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG), a Beijing-based think tank, on Wednesday evening.
To counter the obstacles, Zhai proposed that the Chinese government worked closer with regional institutions, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the European Union, rather than pushing the initiative forward primarily as a transcontinental strategy.
“The new trend of the world is regional cooperation … so how to cooperate with the EU, with Asean, with other regions is a new challenge for us,” he added.
Zhai suggested that in the future, the initiative could become a new platform for international public health and medical investment and cooperation.
Wang Huiyao, president of the CCG and an adviser to the State Council, the country’s cabinet, also believed that the initiative could become a platform for global economic recovery.
He noted that after the second world war, initiatives such as the World Bank and the Marshall Plan were launched to help the world to rebuild.
“[Covid-19 was] almost like an attack or third world war … After this pandemic, we probably will give belt and road a new look,” he said.
Wang believed that even though the US had been resisting China’s technological advancement, the country’s digital Silk Road expansion in telecommunication data routes had to continue, especially when e-commerce and internet conferencing played a key role during the pandemic.
“Multilateral collaboration is probably the next wave to make belt and road projects fly … We really need to mobilise business excitement in belt and road, after all it is an economic and financial project, not a government [policy only],” he said.
Winston Wenyan Ma, a professor from New York University’s school of law and former managing director of China Investment Corporation, said although there had been tensions between Washington and Beijing, business sentiment remained “constructive and open”.
“The best example is probably the Ant Financial IPO in the market right now … [There is] lots of interest from US institutional investors as well as other parts of the world,” he said.
“There’s no sign of conflict, there’s a lot of determination to work out business together.”
Ant Financial, operator of the payments app Alipay and an affiliate of Alibaba, parent of the South China Morning Post, said in July it would list in both Hong Kong and in Shanghai in an IPO that could value it at more than US$200 billion.
The listing could push Hong Kong and Shanghai past the Nasdaq this year for the global fundraising crown.