Pursuing High-quality Belt and Road Cooperation and Fostering a New Development Paradigm

By Gu Xueming

The world is undergoing accelerated changes unseen in a century. The new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation has unleashed unprecedented, fierce competition. Global issues such as climate change and COVID-19 response have produced an impact on human society like never before. All these create an increasingly complicated international environment for Belt and Road cooperation. On the other hand, peace and development, which is the underlying trend of the times, remain unchanged, so do the general direction of economic globalization and the international dynamics of “a rising East and a declining West”. There are still important opportunities for Belt and Road cooperation, which is a huge systemic project. It will be part of China’s new efforts to develop an open economy, and contribute to the new development paradigm with domestic circulation as the mainstay and domestic and international circulations reinforcing each other.

First, Belt and Road cooperation opens up new space for the new development paradigm. 

Belt and Road cooperation pursues development, aims at mutual benefits, and conveys a message of hope. It represents China’s fresh effort to open up in the new era, and will progress in synergy with  the new development paradigm.

1. Belt and Road cooperation promotes smooth domestic and international circulations.

From China’s initiative to an international consensus. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) answers the call of the times and meets the development aspirations of all countries. It energizes partner countries’ internal dynamism for economic growth and facilitates their domestic and international circulations, thus pushing forward economic globalization in a way that is more open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial to all. In the past nine years, Belt and Road cooperation has grown from scratch and reached across the world. The BRI vision and concepts have been included in the documents of important international organizations such as the United Nations, G20 and APEC. The BRI has become a development platform for all parties to stay connected. By early February, 2022, China had signed more than 200 BRI cooperation documents with 148 countries and 32 international organizations. More countries have supported China’s development initiatives, creating a sound external environment for China’s development.

From land and sea corridors to a global network. As a Chinese saying goes, “A big river is full when its tributaries are filled with water, and tributaries must be dry when there is no water in the big river.” Only with openness, inclusiveness and connectivity can countries help each other and achieve win-win results. In the past nine years, connectivity has been the priority of Belt and Road cooperation. A general framework has been established, consisting of “six corridors, six connectivity routes, multiple countries and multiple ports”. A connectivity network of land, sea, air and cyberspace has been put in place, centering on such economic corridors as the New Asia-Europe Continental Bridge, supplemented by major transportation routes like the China-Europe railway Express, the new land-sea corridor and information expressway, and reinforced by major railways, ports and pipelines projects. This not only benefits partner countries, but also opens the routes connecting central and western China and the world, thus promoting balanced regional development and global connectivity.

Breaking down barriers to foster a global market. The centerpiece of the new development paradigm is domestic and international circulations reinforcing each other. It aims to break down the barriers that block circulations on domestic and international markets, so as to more deeply integrate China’s economic development into the global market, and in turn stimulate domestic consumption. This is key to the security of the industrial and supply chains, and essential to a unified domestic market in China. Belt and Road cooperation will promote the global flows of people, business, logistics, capital and information, help to forge regional industrial chains, innovation chains and global supply chains with higher-level opening up, and create new demand through innovation-driven development and high-quality supply. This way, industrial and consumption upgrading in the domestic market will reinforce each other, bringing about rapid recovery of the world economy.

2. Belt and Road cooperation adds impetus to domestic and international circulations.

New achievements in institution building. In the past nine years, Belt and Road partner countries have pooled their efforts to deepen cooperation. China and the other parties have brought into full play bilateral cooperation mechanisms, and made good progress in institution building of the working groups on trade and investment, and cooperation on service trade and e-commerce. Multilateral and regional cooperation has been strengthened, with new members joining the FTA network. Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has been officially signed and implemented. China has made headways in its cooperation with ASEAN, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, African Union and other regional organizations. Fruitful outcomes have been achieved under the mechanisms of Greater Mekong subregion cooperation and Greater Tumen Initiative. All these have expanded and diversified Belt and Road cooperation with improved mechanisms. 

New breakthroughs in economic and trade cooperation. In the past nine years, through Belt and Road cooperation, cross-border connectivity has been enhanced, trade and investment cooperation upgraded, and international cooperation in industrial capacity and equipment manufacturing promoted. Essentially, new demand has been created through effective supply, injecting sustained vigor into the new development paradigm with dual circulations, and rebalancing the world economy. From 2013 to 2021, trade in goods between China and BRI partner countries totaled US$ 11 trillion. Its share in China’s total foreign trade increased from 25% to 29.7%. Even against the backdrop of the pandemic, economic and trade cooperation between many developing countries along Belt and Road routes and China has been robust, which not only contributes to economic recovery in these countries, but also creates a broader external space for the new development paradigm.

New progress in the digital economy. In the past nine years, China and Belt and Road partner countries have seized the opportunities of digitalization, the Internet and smart development in their pursuit of innovation-driven development. They have explored cooperation in 5G, digital economy, big data, cloud computing, mobile payment and smart cities. The digital Silk Road has developed rapidly, facilitating trade in goods among partner countries, and adding new impetus to the world economy. By the end of 2021, China has established Silk Road e-commerce cooperation mechanisms with 22 countries. New forms of foreign trade such as cross-border e-commerce have developed rapidly, and a number of overseas warehouses have been built and put into operation. In November 2021, China formally applied to join the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA), another move in the area of digital trade rules after applying to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (CPTPP) in September 2021.

Pursuing innovation as a new engine of development. In the past nine years, as Chinese products, equipment and projects have gone overseas, Chinese enterprises have also stepped up efforts in technology, rules, standards and intellectual property rights, which are critical areas for development. China has cooperated with partner countries in science and technology people-to-people exchange, joint laboratories, science parks, and technology transfer to embrace a new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation. The Silk Road of Innovation is full of vigor and vitality. BeiDou related products are available in more than 120 countries and regions, providing the most advanced, accurate and all-round spatio-temporal information services. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries are using the BeiDou system in the development of smart cities.

3. Belt and Road cooperation provides stability and sustainability for domestic and international circulations.

Steady progress in international cooperation against COVID-19. The pandemic has hindered people’s movement, but does not hold back international cooperation against the virus under the BRI. Guided by the vision of building a community of shared future for mankind, China has worked hard to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 while increasing medical assistance to other countries and exporting medical supplies in an orderly manner, which demonstrates the importance of building the Silk Road of Health. China-Europe railway Express has run uninterrupted, transporting anti-COVID supplies, making it a truly international lifeline. China has donated anti-COVID supplies to more than 150 countries and more than 10 international organizations, and provided more than 2.1 billion doses of vaccines to more than 120 countries and international organizations. China’s efforts have been commended. The survey of ASEAN countries shows that China has offered the most vaccines to the region. China has also won extensive appreciation for its assistance and support to other countries, which helps to foster a generally friendly international atmosphere for building a new development paradigm with dual circulations.

Expanded cooperation in green development and innovation. The BRI strengthens international cooperation in environmental protection and climate change, promotes the concept of low carbon, environmental protection and green development, and conforms to the general trend of global sustainable development. Green development creates more cooperation opportunities for Belt and Road partner countries. In 2021, China launched the Initiative for Belt and Road Partnership on Green Development with 31 partners, undertaking not to build overseas coal-fired power projects. China took the lead to contribute RMB 1.5 billion to set up the Kunming Biodiversity Fund. China extends support to other developing countries in green and low-carbon energy development, promotes information sharing and capacity building in green and low-carbon development, and deepens cooperation in environmental and climate governance. The Green Silk Road not only promotes energy conservation and environmental protection in China, but also communicates to the world China’s confidence and determination to pursue low-carbon development.

Opening-up with enhanced security ensure steady and effective development. The key to building a new development paradigm lies in the unimpeded economic circulation. Its defining feature is achieving high-standard self-reliance. Dual circulation is by no means self-isolation, nor is it small circulation in various regions. It is even more impossible to do everything on our own and move away from international division of labor and cooperation. Instead, it is about strengthening cooperation with greater openness and building closer links and interactions with the world economy, so as to open up space for China’s economic development. High standard Belt and Road cooperation means that China has made the shift from a passive player to a proactive one in the international circulation. This not only provides an “anchor” for the international circulation, but also gives it new impetus. A line of security is thus established for the new development paradigm with dual circulations. With that, China takes the initiative of opening up to the outside world. And this is the basic requirement of high-quality development.

Second, efforts must be made to coordinate the new development paradigm and Belt and Road cooperation. 

Under the new circumstances, coordination between the new development paradigm and high-quality Belt and Road cooperation is a useful attempt at improving global governance in the new era, and will be a complement to the existing global governance mechanism. Pursuing high-quality Belt and Road cooperation and improving the efficiency and performance of domestic circulation through international circulation can help foster a dynamic balance in the Chinese economy at a higher level.

1. Focusing on new drivers.

Creating a virtuous cycle of coordinated development  between domestic and external demand. Domestic and international markets should be better connected by improving cross-border logistics capabilities, so as to foster greater synergy and complementarity with BRI partner countries. Foreign trade must be promoted in an innovative way. Innovation must be strengthened in science and technology, institutions, models and forms of business. Coordination must be enhanced between import and export, trade in goods and services, trade and two-way investment, as well as trade and industry. Vigorous efforts must be made to develop digital trade and green trade, and improve the integrated regulation system of domestic and foreign trade. Full play must be given to the role of important exhibitions. Efforts must be made to promote the sustained and healthy development of the platform economy so as to expand multiplying effects. China’s big market should be shared with the world to meet the needs of industrial upgrading and people’s aspiration for a better life.

Creating a virtuous cycle of interconnected markets and integrated industries. Multilateral and international financial institutions are welcomed to participate in BRI investment and financing. Third-party market cooperation should be encouraged to deliver benefits to all through multi-party participation. The potential of domestic demand should be unleashed to turn the tremendous domestic market into the main engine of China’s own development and the accelerator of common development. To promote high-quality “bringing in”, market access should be steadily expanded and a good business environment built to ensure that foreign investors feel assured and confident in China. To push forward high level “going global”, efforts should be made to help Chinese enterprises deeply participate in the international division of labor, enhance their capacity in global resource allocation, and move up the value chain. This way, more open, resilient and dynamic industrial and supply chains will be built.

Creating a virtuous cycle of innovation promotion and rules connection. Belt and Road cooperation meets the need to reform the global governance system, highlights the sense of community with a shared future where all rise and fall together and assume shared power and responsibilities, and provides new ideas and new solutions for improving the reform of the global governance system. Openness should be enhanced to promote reform, development and innovation. China should also improve its capacity and self-reliance in science and technology through open cooperation. Domestic and international rules should be connected. And the focus should be shifted from opening-up based on flows of commodities and factors of production to opening-up based on rules, institutions, management and standards, so as to make China’s opening-up more systematic, integrated and coordinated.

2. Shaping new converging points

Following the philosophy of green development. The existing mechanisms on bilateral and multilateral international cooperation in environmental protection must be coordinated to foster the synergy with the green development and environmental plans of partner countries, so as to provide new channels for environmental cooperation and green development among them. Environmental governance must be enhanced in building transport facilities and industrial parks, and green management must cover the whole life cycle from planning, design, construction and acceptance. Green manufacturing and services must be promoted. China should expand cooperation with other countries in environmental pollution control, ecological protection, and innovation in environmental science, innovate applications of green finance in manufacturing capacity cooperation, and guide the flows of funds to environment-friendly industries.

Promoting Digital Silk Road Cooperation. Digital infrastructure should be strengthened, and new breakthroughs made in industrializing digital systems and digitalizing industries. Cross-border data flow under the BRI should be facilitated so that data flows contribute more to economic growth. Digital parks should be built to serve the BRI, and virtual parks and industrial clusters across physical boundaries established to promote the deep integration of online and offline. Silk Road e-commerce should be developed through new formats and models such as cross-border e-commerce. Digital technologies should be used to communicate the Silk Road culture and form a diverse and interactive pattern of people-to-people exchange.

Protecting human health and safety. Continued efforts should be made to improve the cooperation mechanism of global public health governance, give full play to the important role of the World Health Organization as a specialized multilateral institution of global public health, strengthen international cooperation and coordination, and promote the accessibility of global medical supplies. Exchanges and cooperation should be enhanced in research and development of public health science and technology, establish an efficient linkage and cooperation mechanism for tackling key technological problems, accelerate cooperation in traceability, testing, research and production of drugs and vaccines, and strengthen the exchange and promotion of public health experience. China will continue to increase assistance to help underdeveloped countries and regions fight and prevent pandemics, increase material and technical assistance for BRI partner countries, and build a strong community of health for mankind.

Expanding the Silk Road of Innovation. The Belt and Road Science and Technology Innovation Cooperation Action Plan will be upgraded to strengthen international scientific and technological cooperation and exchanges in health, agriculture, energy, and climate change, carry out science-based international cooperation against epidemics, speed up the transformation of regional scientific and technological achievements, strengthen international cooperation in intellectual property protection, build a large platform for the integration of chains of talents, innovation and industries, and create an open, fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for scientific and technological development.

3. Create new underpinnings.

Making overall plans for development and security, and implement the holistic approach to national security. Domestically, China will focus on development, reform and stability; externally, it will seek peace, cooperation and win-win results. Security is the premise of development. For Belt and Road projects, comprehensive assessments must be made on security, politics, economy, debt and ecology. The risk prevention and control system must be implemented. Security safeguards must be stepped up for overseas projects. The capacity for tackling risks and crises must be enhanced. China adheres to the notion that development offers the safeguards for security and will encourage Belt and Road partner countries to work together to meet challenges, promote economic and social recovery, and unleash the development and growth potential.

Resolutely defending multilateralism and actively fostering a sound international environment. Multilateralism must be defended resolutely, and regional economic integration unswervingly promoted. Livelihood projects must be carried out to enhance the sense of fulfillment for BRI countries and people. Differences must be effectively managed, and disputes in Belt and Road cooperation properly settled. Common ground should be sought in COVID-19 response, green development and climate change. Cooperation involving third-party or multiple- party market should be expanded and international manufacturing capacity cooperation carried out. Financial institutions and multilateral development institutions should be drawn in to participate in and improve the diverse investment and financing system of the BRI.

As a Chinese poem reads, “Setting the sail full against the strong wind and waves, passengers of the same mind in the same boat can complete a journey of ten thousand miles.” Today’s world is in the middle of turbulent changes, bringing unprecedented challenges and tests to all countries. At the same time, people all over the world have a stronger expectation for peace, development, and win-win cooperation. We should be mindful of the problems and challenges in Belt and Road cooperation, and more importantly see the unprecedented opportunities and development prospects of the BRI. High-quality Belt and Road cooperation will better serve the new development paradigm aiming at high standard, sustainable and people-centered progress. It will open up new vistas for China’s open development, provide new opportunities for the development of all countries in the world, and make new contributions to global economic recovery.

Gu Xueming is President of Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, Ministry of Commerce.