Putin’s prominence and the shadow of conflict: Key takeaways from China’s Belt and Road Forum

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A two-day global gathering billed as China’s “most important diplomatic event” of the year wrapped up in the Chinese capital on Wednesday, with Beijing touting its outsized role in world development – and its alternative vision to that of the United States.

Two dozen leaders and more than a hundred delegations, largely from the Global South, came together for a packed schedule of forums and bilateral meetings revolving around Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – the global infrastructure drive that has cemented China’s place as a major international player since its launch a decade ago.

The gathering – in which Vladimir Putin was the guest of honor – also provided a window into Xi’s vision for a world absent of the norms and values promoted by liberal democracies, which have shunned the Russian leader following his brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Also hanging over the event was the war in the Middle East, where Israel’s fight with Hamas militants threatens to embroil the region in a broader conflict in which China, Russia and the US would all have a stake.

Here are the main takeaways from China’s Belt and Road Forum.

No doubt over Putin’s prominence

The gathering left no question over who was the most important world leader in attendance in the eyes of China’s Xi.

At a lavish welcome banquet in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Tuesday, golden doors opened to reveal Xi and Putin striding into the room side-by-side, with other leaders and their spouses trailing behind.

Putin was the first among a handful of visiting leaders to deliver remarks at the forum’s opening ceremony on Wednesday. There, and in three hours of bilateral meetings with Xi later that day, the Russian leader stressed his close alignment with China.

The two countries shared “common threats,” which strengthened “Russian-Chinese interaction,” Putin told reporters before departing Beijing, after saying he and Xi had discussed the “situation” in both the Middle East and Ukraine “in detail.”

China and Russia have both publicly called for a ceasefire in the spiraling crisis in Gaza and neither has explicitly condemned Hamas for its attack on Israel that sparked the conflict – cutting a stark contrast to the outpouring of support for Israel from leaders across Europe and the US.

The Russian and Chinese leaders’ meeting in Beijing coincided with US President Joe Biden’s arrival in Israel, in a staunch show of support for the country and of American diplomatic muscle to expedite humanitarian aid.

In his meeting with Putin, Xi hailed the China-Russia partnership as “a long-term commitment,” stressing “ever-lasting good neighborliness and mutually beneficial cooperation,” and alluding to their shared 4,300-kilometer border and mutual aims. Both see the other as a critical partner in pushing back on what they perceive to be a US-led world order stacked against them.

Clear divisions among the world’s major powers

Xi’s show of solidarity with Putin at the Belt and Road Forum also underscored the deepening division between the world’s major powers.

The event was attended by 24 leaders – far fewer than the 37 who traveled to the previous BRI forum four years ago.

Among key missing dignitaries were those from European countries. In 2019, then-Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte attended, as did leaders from Greece, Austria, Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Since then, skepticism about China’s global ambitions has risen in Europe, in particular over Beijing’s economic and diplomatic support for Moscow. Italy, the only G7 member to join the BRI, is considering exiting the project when its membership expires next year.

Leaders who did attend included Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, and others from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Taliban – which is not widely recognized as Afghanistan’s government – also sent a delegation.

In their speeches, many leaders told the forum of their hopes to spur much-needed, sustainable development in their countries, while some also called for a more multilateral, cooperative world.

While he did not mention the US by name, Xi made apparent jabs against what Beijing sees as America’s efforts to keep itself on top and stifle China’s rise.

“Viewing others’ development as a threat or taking economic interdependence as a risk will not make one’s own life better or speed up one’s development,” he warned in his opening address.

War in the Middle East casts a shadow on global relations

The war in the Middle East hung over the gathering, which began as news poured in of a devastating blast at a Gaza hospital that likely killed hundreds of displaced Palestinians sheltering from Israeli airstrikes.

But mention of the situation was largely absent from the forum. None of the national leaders who spoke at the opening ceremony raised the conflict.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, however, said he couldn’t not mention the situation during his opening ceremony address, in which he demanded an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

Palestinian grievances after five decades of occupation, as serious as they may be, “cannot justify the acts of terror against civilians committed by Hamas on October 7 (which) I immediately condemned,” Guterres said. “But those events cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

On Thursday, Xi made his first public statement on the conflict since Hamas launched its October 7 attack.

In a meeting with Egypt’s representative to the forum, the Chinese leader called for a ceasefire and an end to the war “as soon as possible,” while backing a two-state solution that would establish an independent Palestinian state.

Xi also said China is willing to strengthen coordination with Egypt and other Arab countries to “promote an early, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Palestine issue,” according to a readout from state broadcaster CCTV. China has yet to name Hamas in its statements.

Beijing on Sunday said it would dispatch its special envoy for the Middle East Zhai Jun to the region in the coming days.

China emphasizes ‘high-quality’ global development

The forum also pointed to the next chapter of the Belt and Road Initiative, which enters its second decade as China’s economic growth slows and borrowing costs have risen worldwide.

The program, which Beijing says has mobilized as much $1 trillion in finance, has played a substantial role in helping developing nations to build roads, bridges, ports and railways – but has faced accusations of saddling countries with too much debt and having negative environmental impacts.

Chinese officials hailed what they framed as efforts to move the initiative into a new phase of “high-quality” development, and focused in separate forums on the digital economy and how to promote sustainable “green development.”

There have also been questions about whether China would continue to liberally fund major infrastructure projects, as data also shows a significant decline in such funding in recent years.

But when asked at a closing news conference about infrastructure-funding programs proposed by other nations like the US in recent years, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared to suggest Beijing would continue to stake its claim in this space.

“Obviously, competition should not mean working against each other but mutually improving each other,” he said, while touting the quantity of China’s global development projects.

“Why don’t we take a look at the international track record, in terms of who can build more roads, railways and bridges for developing countries, and who can build more schools, hospitals and stadiums for the people of developing countries,” he said.

“We have the confidence and the capability.”

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