In April 2019, the Second Belt and Road forum for international cooperation was concluded with the adoption by more than 60 participating countries and organizations of the joint communique titled “Belt and Road Cooperation: Shaping a Brighter Shared Future”. The promotion of a new type of international relations and sustainable development was most visible in official documents and statements of the leaders of involved countries. The joint communique repeatedly referred to achieving “sustainable development in its three dimensions – economic, social and environmental – in a balanced and integrated manner” [MFA of the PRC, 2019]. Since 1994, when China released the national Agenda 21, sustainable development has been the watchword of the government in various fields such as family planning, poverty alleviation, health, environmental protection through water protection, pollution control, solid waste management, natural resources management, natural disaster prevention, renewable energy, and urbanization. In pursuit of these objectives, in 2000, China established a reorganized leading group to facilitate sustainable development projects. The government also published a position paper on the issue of sustainable development and suggested that it would follow “the road of mutual benefit, win-win cooperation, and common development” and “contribute to the construction of a community of shared destiny” [MFA of the PRC, 2016].
As a major project of the 21st century, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that aims to connect three continents also needs to develop a long-term sustainable development model. The concept of sustainable development was a logical transition to the greening of scientific knowledge and socio-economic development, which began rapidly in the 1970s when humanity faced global environmental problems [Coggburn and Rahm, 2007]. The response to this concern was the creation of international non-governmental scientific organizations to study global processes on Earth. The main goal of sustainable development in the field of ecology is the stability of physical and ecological systems [Griggs et al, 2014]. Promoting environmental protection is considered to be a part of the long-term sustainable development process of humanity [Daly, 1990]. BRI projects, despite their primary focus on economic development, also have much to contribute to the sustainable development process, including in the ecological field.
The BRI mostly involves developing countries, which have focused on economic growth, specifically on the GDP increase, in the past few decades. However, this approach has not resolved the issue of inclusive development. These economic models have also shown weaknesses in terms of social, gender, regional and ecological balances [Xu et al, 2017]. The BRI projects provide a scope for implementing sustainable development practices as the vision documents and other statements released recently suggest “green financing”, community development and environmental protection along the BRI route. For instance, the Vision document of the BRI mentions “diversified, independent, balanced and sustainable development in these countries” [Liu, 2016]. The BRI has provisions for the sustainable development of China for many reasons. Firstly, by linking the powerhouses of the eastern coastal regions of the country with the resource-rich western regions, as well as with the Eurasian region, China will be able to make a sustainable progress stabilizing the energy consumption and demand of the country, for example, by producing more environmental friendly gas and using renewable energy resources [Liu and Hao, 2018]. Secondly, the BRI intends to connect Asia, Africa, and Europe via modern connectivity lines. Speaking at the forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping named the New Eurasian Land Bridge, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor as the main infrastructure projects, including their telecommunications networks, railways, and pipeline systems. This connectivity bridges the high growth areas with the relatively backward regions providing a scope for levelling up in economic indicators in the longer run, thus fulfilling one of the objectives of sustainable economic development. In addition, Beijing pursues a policy of combining BRI projects with the development strategies of the participating countries: a clear example is aligning the BRI with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol state program and Mongolia’s Steppe Road program, which thereby forms an extensive multimodal transport system. Thirdly, the BRI has chances of sustaining globalization with infrastructure projects and combining production, consumption and distribution aspects in the coming decades, thus reducing and overcoming the ongoing financial crises and possibly triggering new diversified economic models of development rather than the current ones focused on external trade. Domestically, China had made a shift from export orientation towards domestic consumption in the 12th and 13th five year plans. Fourthly, the “low carbon” investments for specific projects in infrastructure and environmental protection have the potential to provide an alternative to the current trend of spending on ecologically harmful projects. Reportedly, the forum participants signed 283 agreements totaling more than $64 billion. However, the list of projects has not been published yet. Thus, we cannot determine if green investment sectors are considered or not. Fifthly, the BRI suggests improving urban development through smart cities. In the long term, this could integrate various environmentally friendly industrial, transport and energy projects related to sustainable development. While addressing ecological concerns of the regions, China also provides for utilizing extra capacities generated in the recent reform and opening up period.
The forum summarized the implementation of the BRI since 2015, that is, since the adoption of its action plan. A great emphasis at the forum was placed on anti-protectionist and globalization-well-being-for-all ideas. Based on the argument that in the period from 2014 to 2016 (just after the BRI announcement) China’s trade with the BRI countries exceeded $3 trillion, China put forward an initiative for uninterrupted trade ties among the BRI countries. Furthering trade and investments across the BRI regions could trigger economic interdependencies between the continents and lead to more sustainable development practices. As stated at the forum, the facilitation of trade and investment norms within the BRI led to a 90% reduction of the time spent on customs clearance of agricultural products imported to China from the Central Asian countries; 56 trade and economic cooperation zones were established, with 180,000 jobs created; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s loans to the BRI countries totaled $1.7 billion; and China’s total investments in the BRI countries amounted to $50 billion [CPEC, 2019].
It is obvious that China tries to position itself as a country driving contemporary international relations and providing global sustainable development. Moreover, China is already perceived as the architect of a new type of international affairs based on transparency without a bloc approach, pluralism of political systems, as well as an integrated security concept. Clearly, the large-scale forum has become a platform where China puts forward its own vision of global governance, increasingly linking it with sustainable development goals and objectives. Thus, China proves the consistency and legitimacy of the grand BRI project, which, according to Beijing, not only develops a new multimodal infrastructure network but also greatly contributes to the development of education, environmental protection and cultural dialogue among the countries along the BRI route.
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Coggburn, Jerrell and Diane Rahm (2007). Government Green Procurement in the U.S.: an Approach to Meeting Global Environmental Challenges. Handbook of Globalization and the Environment, CRC Press, Boca Raton.
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Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2016). China’s Position Paper on the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/t1357701.shtml. Accessed on 22.06.2019.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2019). Joint Communique of the Leaders’ Roundtable of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Retrieved from https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/t1658766.shtml. Accessed on 20.06.2019.
Liu, Qing (2016). China needs to pave ‘One Belt One Road’ with green finance. Retrieved from https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/8532-China-needs-to-pave-One-Belt-One-Road-with-green-finance-say-experts. Accessed on 19.05.2019.
Liu, Yunyang and Yu Hao (2018). The dynamic links between CO2 emissions, energy consumption and economic development in the countries along “the Belt and Road”. Science of the Total Environment, Vol. 645, pp. 674-683. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969718325452?via%3Dihub. Accessed on 26.05.2019.
Xu, Li-jun, Fan, Xiao-chao, Wang, Wei-qing, Xu, Lei, Duan, You-lian, and Rui-jing Shi (2017). Renewable and sustainable energy of Xinjiang and development strategy of node areas in the “Silk Road Economic Belt”. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Vol. 79, pp. 274-285. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032117306731. Accessed on 26.05.2019.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Azhar Serikkaliyeva graduated from China Studies Department of the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in 2008. She completed master education in 2010 by presenting her master thesis namely ‘Chinese strategy of peaceful rising and current sino-kazakh relations ’. She holds a Masters in Area Studies from al-Farabi Kazakh National University. Azhar Serikkaliyeva started doctorate process in 2010 and completed it in 2014 by presenting her PhD thesis ‘Chinese social and economic activity at the SCO’. During academic career she has published more than 20 scientific p