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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping talk during their meeting on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, Oct. 17.Sergey Savostyanov/The Associated Press

World leaders are gathering in Beijing this week to hear Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision for the future of the Belt and Road Initiative, a globe-spanning trade and infrastructure program that now encompasses more than 150 countries.

After 10 years, the BRI has come in for a lot of criticism lately for failing to deliver on its grand promises, saddling poor countries with yet more debt and acting as a tool for Chinese political influence.

China regards such critiques as ill-founded or political and points to the sheer size of the BRI as proof of its success: more than US$1-trillion disbursed for some 3,000 projects, half a million jobs created, and tens of millions “lifted out of poverty,” according to state media. And Mr. Xi’s ambitions have only grown, with the BRI forming a key plank for a new model of global governance that would replace the Western-led international order that emerged after the Second World War.

In a white paper last month, China’s State Council said the BRI, along with the closely related Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative, “lights the path forward as the world fumbles for solutions, and represents China’s contribution to global efforts to protect our shared home and create a better future of prosperity for all.”

“It is now widely recognized in the international community that the vision has nothing to do with self-interest and protectionism,” the paper said. “Instead, by presenting China’s vision of the course of human development, it confronts the hegemonic thinking of certain countries that seek supremacy.”

Speaking to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Mr. Xi’s initiative “aligns perfectly” with Moscow’s own vision for the world, including that of creating a “Greater Eurasia” and a new “framework of co-operation in which no one imposes its will on others.”

Mr. Putin landed in Beijing on Monday, his first visit to a major global power since March, when the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. The last time Mr. Putin was in the Chinese capital was weeks before that invasion, in early 2021, when he and Mr. Xi hailed a “no-limits” partnership between their countries.

Since the war, Russia has relied heavily on China for diplomatic and economic support in the face of crippling sanctions imposed by the West. Mr. Putin was accompanied this week by the heads of Russia’s oil and gas giants, Rosneft and Gazprom, and will be seeking to make progress on the long-delayed Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, which would see Russian gas that historically flowed to Europe redirected to China.

In an apparent show of solidarity with China, Russia announced this week it was joining Beijing in restricting fish and seafood imports from Japan in response to Tokyo’s discharge of treated water from the former Fukushima nuclear site into the Pacific Ocean.

Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin will meet on Wednesday to exchange views “on a range of bilateral issues,” China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said. The Kremlin said that will include the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas; both Moscow and Beijing have criticized Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and urged an immediate ceasefire.

Beyond Russia, this week’s forum will give China a chance to flaunt its diplomatic strength, even as the country’s economy continues to sputter after its emergence from pandemic controls late last year. Attendees at the forum include Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape. Italian leader Giorgia Meloni is skipping the event, as Rome looks to exit the BRI in a blow to Beijing’s hopes to expand the project to Europe.

Beijing is competing with both the United States and India for influence in the developing world, with New Delhi using last month’s G20 summit – which Mr. Xi did not attend – to position itself as a leader of the Global South.

The BRI is a key part of this effort, said Christoph Nedopil, director of the Asia Institute at Griffith University in Australia.

“Support for the BRI should not be underestimated,” he said, as “interest in co-operating with China is very strong” in the developing world, even as specific projects under the scheme have come under criticism and Beijing has been accused of saddling poorer countries with heavy debt loads.

“Without a doubt, a number of BRI countries have seen their debt levels rising,” Mr. Nedopil said, something that has been made worse by sluggish economic growth in recent years. He said there has been a retooling of the BRI away from traditional, large infrastructure projects – such as roads built by Chinese construction firms and paid for with Chinese debt – toward “actually commercially viable projects that generate cash flow and even profits.”

At the same time, China is supporting emerging economies through the Global Development Initiative, which takes the more traditional approach of aid, low-interest loans and grants.

Elaine Dezenski, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, said the BRI “has failed to meet its stated objectives, disbursing cash and corruption in large doses and building crumbling dams and deep debt dependency throughout the Global South.”

This week’s forum, she added, will be about “an economically weakened China” finding new ways to “cast the diminished and problematic initiative as a net positive for China and the world.”

In an editorial Tuesday, the Chinese state-run Global Times blasted critics in the West who have been “highly vigilant toward the BRI, constantly pouring dirty water on and undermining it over the past decade.”

“Nearly three-quarters of the countries around the world” will be represented at this week’s forum, the paper added. “They themselves have voted with their feet for the reputation and achievements of the Belt and Road Initiative over the past decade.”

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