During the highly intense four-days of the 5th Plenum of the CPC Central Committee (26th - 29th October), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was certainly not at the centre of the debate. This Plenum agenda, without major surprises, has been articulated by the following momentum: the draft proposal of China's 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development, that is going to accompany China in the post-Covid recovery era, and the adoption of an additional 15-year perspective blueprint – the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035 – which represents an intermediate step toward China’s ultimate goal to be a “great modern socialist nation” by 2049. In other words, by the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China foundation.
The fact that both documents have been presented and discussed in this conclave is the crucial element to consider. Under current international turbulences at different levels – the pandemic, the rise of unilateralism and protectionism worldwide, China-US escalating tensions – China is expected, within the next few years, to fortify its domestic economy, to boost its internal demand in driving economic growth and to finally give effect to the “dual circulation” paradigm: the country will shift its attention on the domestic economy but remain open to foreign trade. Hence, the next five years’ perspective as stated in the Plenum summary communiqué and captured in the 14th FYP will be a little bit more focused on internal borders and soaked in the spirit of stability, self-sufficiency and quality growth.
However, this internal focus should not be misinterpreted as a resized Chinese commitment in the international arena. Necessarily, CCP Plenums, held behind closed doors as other recurring political appointments of Chinese politics, are an important moment to build consensus and to identify a roadmap for the years to come. This may be particularly true amid the current uncertain and fast-changing international scenario against which China is adopting more and more a vigilant stance. In this peculiar framework, nonetheless, the adoption of the second document “the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035”, whose main guidelines have been released shortly after the plenum, is sending a message to the outer world: China is determined to continue its Long-March toward 2049. By this meaning that all projects, initiatives and plans related to this major achievement are not called into question.
The BRI, in fact, may have not entered explicitly the CPC agenda – although at a closer look it appears among the Plenum keywords – but it remains an absolute priority for President Xi and the CPC elite that in 2017 incorporated the BRI in the CPC Constitution. What is interesting to consider shortly after the end of this Plenum is whether the BRI is likely to experience important delays or be subject to reconfigurations or changes anytime soon. Observing what happened during the last months of the pandemic may be of help in this regard: here are exposed the two main elements to keep an eye on.
Firstly, the BRI was undoubtedly hit by the coronavirus: Beijing revealed in late June 2020 that about a fifth of the BRI projects had been “seriously affected” (i.e. on hold or receiving minimal works) due to the current situation. Several African and Asian countries are struggling to service debts and although President Xi declared the intention to write off all their interest-free loans due this year, these loans comprise just a fraction of the debt that African countries owe China. Likewise, even though in the first quarter of this year trade between China and BRI countries continued to grow (+3.2% year-on-year) and direct investment by China was up +11.7% on a yearly basis, China’s policy banks (i.e. China Development Bank, EXIM Bank of China) which fund most of the BRI projects have started to adopt a more cautious position in their lending tactics. That said, what is possible to expect, at least in the short-term, is a certain degree of adjustments and major slowdown in BRI projects implementation.
Secondly, during the past few months the BRI revealed other important features: adaptability and resilience. The relentless Chinese ability to react and deal with unforeseen situations might in fact find opportunities for new soft power campaigns. Already in March 2020, China stressed the ambition to recast itself as a global health leader delivering medical teams and medical aid in different European and non-European countries. In this context, medical supplies have been also provided by companies who were already involved in BRI projects, including Huawei or Communications Construction Company, accelerating de facto the development of a specific health-related branch of the BRI. Truthfully a “Health Silk Road” (健康丝绸之路 jiànkāng sīchóu zhīlù) was already part of the BRI at its inception; with the Covid-19 outbreak the health emphasis has become an increasingly crucial and strategic component of the BRI.
In the aftermath of the 5th Plenum, it is possible to add a further consideration to these two recent and on-going developments. An additional reconfiguration that the BRI might be subjected to in the following months is of sectorial kind: the 14th FYP is calling for investments in specific sector, namely technology self-reliance and environment and even though they have been stressed with a domestic focus, in the long-term they may have a repercussion in the different sectors in which the BRI may partially re-shape its perimeter of activity.
One final aspect to consider following this four-days Plenum is the timeframe that President Xi seems to have projected toward his Presidency and leading role of CPC. This intermediate “vision at 2035” could represent not only an intermediate step toward the fulfilment of the Chinese Dream in 2049 but also an extension of President Xi leadership to “steer China through perilous waters”. Since the BRI was born as the signature of President Xi’s foreign diplomacy, a prolonged Xi Era – in a less uncertain and more stable international order – would secure BRI centrality in the years ahead.