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Belt and Road Forum: China’s Xi warns against decoupling

Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against breaking away from China at the opening of the Belt and Road Initiative forum in Beijing on Wednesday, criticising Western countries’ efforts to reduce dependence on the Chinese economy.

The Chinese President also expressed his approval of the plan launched 10 years ago to build global infrastructure and energy networks connecting Asia and Africa to Europe via sea and land routes. He noted “the blueprints have become real projects”.

Representatives from more than 130 countries, including several state leaders, attended the forum. Most notable was Mr Xi’s “dear friend”, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr Xi addressed more than 1,000 delegates gathered in the Great Hall of the People west of Tiananmen Square:

 “We stand against unilateral sanctions, economic coercion, decoupling and supply chain disruption.”

Reducing dependence on supply chains with China has become a priority for western economies. Beijing’s tense relationship with Taiwan has heightened geopolitical risks in Asia. Trade disruptions from the pandemic years have also increased the desire to limit its dependence on China. However, Xi has opposed Western attempts to reduce dependence on the Chinese economy, saying:

“Our lives will not be better and our development will not be faster if we view the development of others as a threat, and economic interdependence as a risk.”

High-ranking EU representatives were absent, despite the BRI’s original goal of linking China to Western Europe. The only head of state from EU representatives was Hungary’s populist President Viktor Orban. Other notable participants included Haji Nooruddin Azizi, Minister of Commerce of the Afghan Taliban administration. Mr Azizi expressed his views to a group of journalists at the ceremony:

“China has more interest right now in developing Afghanistan at this moment, so we are more engaged with China. The Chinese have more interest in economic affairs, that’s why we’re here.”

Analysts believe that the West fears an expanding global China. China has at times snapped back at criticism of the BRI, saying it carries anti-Chinese prejudice and a desire to curb its growth, disregarding genuine good intentions.

After Mr Xi’s speech, Vladimir Putin praised the BRI initiative and proposed global investment in the Northern Sea Route. He believes that this initiative could help expand East-West trade. Mr Xi aims to make the Belt and Road smaller and greener, moving from large projects such as dams to high-tech projects such as digital finance and e-commerce platforms. Analysts say the aim is to promote the idea of a multipolar world order that gives the South more opportunities for development rather than domination by Washington and its allies.

A European business representative said on the sidelines of the ceremony that the BRI was “having an impact on some of the countries involved” and that “I think there is some truth in some of the speeches about improving living standards and connectivity.”

The BRI has also become more focused on issues such as artificial intelligence and climate change as Xi seeks to use it to export Chinese governance ideas and build consensus on Chinese norms and development model, analysts said. On Wednesday, Xi reinforced these trends, pledging to “deepen cooperation in green infrastructure, energy and transport” and “launch a global initiative on artificial intelligence governance”.

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